Art Helps the Mind as well as the Soul

08/11/2012 13:16 GMT | Updated 07/01/2013 10:12 GMT

Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University and the South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (SEPT) have found that drawing and painting can have a positive effect on mental health.The results of the study, published in the latest online edition of Perspectives in Public Health, show that people with mental health problems who participated in an arts course benefitted from improved mental well-being and increased social inclusion. 88% of participants also reported an improvement in their levels of motivation and 81% reported gaining confidence after taking part in an art course.

Open Arts, which has been run by SEPT since 2008, aims to promote well-being and social inclusion for people with mental health needs, including personality disorder, major depression and schizophrenia. Most participants are referred to the courses by a mental health worker, but to increase integration of participants within their communities, people can also self-refer to Open Arts, as the project is advertised publicly as well as through mental health services.The two hour sessions, which run one day a week for 12 weeks, are facilitated by professional artists with relevant mental health and group work experience. The Open Arts scheme has proved incredibly popular and by April 2011 a substantial waiting list had built up for an introductory course in four Essex towns (Grays, Brentwood, Basildon and Southend).

Due to the need to improve the evidence base for participatory arts and health courses, people on the waiting list were invited to take part in an evaluation of Open Arts. People on the waiting list who had been allocated a place formed an intervention group. Those remaining on the waiting list, who could not be allocated a place on a course at that time due to over-subscription, were asked to complete the same outcome measures over the same time period, so forming a control group. Participants in the intervention group were also asked to rate the service and were offered the opportunity to join a focus group at the end of their courses.

The researchers from Anglia Ruskin and SEPT analysed data from 32 people on the waiting list (their control group), and from 26 people taking part in the Open Arts course. Outcomes were evaluated using the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS) and the Social Inclusion Scale (SIS). Before the course started scores across the groups on both measures were statistically equivalent. When these measures were taken again after the three month art courses, only those receiving the intervention showed statistical improvement on both measures, whereas the control group showed no improvement over the same period. Feedback from those receiving the Open Arts treatment showed that in addition to the 88% improvement in motivation and 81% increase in confidence, most felt more positive after taking part (73%) and that their relationships with other people had improved (89%).

Interestingly, the researchers then followed the control group participants over time, and found that those who went onto take part in later Open Arts courses then showed similar statistical improvements in well-being and social inclusion as the original intervention group.

This Open Arts evaluation is the strongest support to date for the use of arts to improve social inclusion and mental well-being in the field of mental health care. The researchers at Anglia Ruskin University and SEPT have now applied for more funding in order to carry out a much larger randomised controlled trial of the arts and health intervention.

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