Celebrating New Year in Rome, a city seeped in amazing art, breathtaking architecture and a sense of shared belief, I asked my guide Valeria - a doctor working for a children's hospital in the Vatican - what she thought about the healing power of art.
She told me she believes there's an important place today for the holistic approach to healing as promoted by the ancient civilizations. Pointing out the remains of healing shrines which were popular during the early Roman period when there was still widespread belief in miracle cures, Valeria said that medicine is the science and art of healing, and although many Roman physicians of the time - notably Galen (131-201 CE) - worked diligently to move away from the mythical approach and expand medical knowledge, they still understood the importance of stimulating the patient's own healing energies and the benefit of serving the whole person - the physical, emotional, social and spiritual.
The world of art is full of remarkable tales of insight, vision and personal healing, and there are numerous references within medicine, anthropology and religious history to the healing powers of art. My experience in Rome brought to mind a story, as told to me by David Gilbert, formerly MD at Waterstones Booksellers and currently heading up Creative United, a collaborative venture with Arts Council England. This is what David had to say:
"In my travels in 2013, I came across nothing more remarkable than the extraordinary works of the 14th Century Anchoress, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416).
In her book 'Revelations Of Divine Love', written in 1413, she records her journey from near fatal illness to recovery, which she describes in terms of a series of mystical divine revelations, at the heart of which lies a radical religiousness in which she sometimes sees God in female rather than male terms.
As a statement of her commitment to God she commits herself to incarceration in a solitary cell in the church of St Julian in Norwich. This is known as the practice of an Anchorite.
Here is Julian's most often quoted saying :
'And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well'.
I visited the church, which, though now reconstructed following bombing during the war, retains an air of mystical veneration even though it now lies in a housing estate.
It is through her writings that Julian's fame was created and in particular by virtue of her being the first recorded female author in the UK.
In her writings you sense that two forms of healing are taking place. One is her mystical revelations of God which she refers to as her source of healing. The other is the act of committing her thoughts to writing and thus sharing them with the world.
Julian of Norwich was healed by virtue of her religious visions which she venerated through her anchorite existence, in concert with her radical proto feminist writing.
It strikes me that this dualism is precisely at the heart of the healing power of art".
So there you have it, the first recorded female author in the UK, was also a pioneer in self-healing, and she's not been forgotten. In 2009 the Lady Julian Bridge (pictured) opened in Norwich, named as such, following a public competition.
Today there is a growing understanding of the power of creativity to discover, explore and share what is most important to us as individuals and through that process, also heal and prevent illness. Additionally, the arts have long been appreciated for their ability to connect individuals of different backgrounds through a shared experience that can benefit communities as well as individuals. A point which David Gilbert expands upon in his blog which you can find here.
Reducing the Cost of Healthcare
Around the world the arts are emerging as an important and integral component of healthcare. According to a report by the US based Society for the Arts in Healthcare, new evidence demonstrates that such programmes result in patients requiring shorter hospital stays, less medication and having fewer complications - all of which translates to a reduction in healthcare costs.
However, the report concludes with a warning: "Much of the research focused on the economic benefits of arts in healthcare is anecdote rich and data poor. It is hoped that future analysis of the economic benefits of arts in healthcare will advance policy conversations about using the arts to simultaneously reduce health costs and raise the quality of care".
Pioneering Research into Creative Arts Therapies
With every New Year comes a tension between a sense of reflection on the past year and momentum for the one ahead. For us at Creative Skills For Life, we greet 2014 with great expectation.
Later this month, CSL will initiate a research project in partnership with Warwick Medical School/University Hospitals Coventry & Warwick NHS Trust. The research aims to examine the value of creativity as a means of improving quality of life for people living with life-threatening and life-limiting conditions. This will be the first phase of an evolving body of research designed to validate the importance of digitally-enabled collaborative art as a catalyst for healing and personal development.
A social venture and campaigning organisation, CSL's mission is to ensure that anyone that wants it has access to qualified tools and technologies that enable them to express themselves creatively, connect with other people and work together on arts based projects, thereby improving their quality of life.
But to see such a definitive change in our healthcare system whereby holistic care and creative arts therapies aren't just incorporated, but are actively promoted and properly funded requires a united campaign.
On this note I would like to invite anyone who is already actively involved in creative healthcare or just interested in the subject matter to join us so that we can make the voice for a more integrated and holistic approach even louder.
Together we can make 2014 a year where the power of creativity in healthcare is given a proper hearing.