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How to make the arts a priority

This question is a fairly broad one, and it’s this: how does music (and any form of creative art) improve a person’s mental health?

Think about it: right about now during the holiday season and “down time” isn’t without a playlist or two, right? It’s not a case of why – that’s a given – it is the how that we should be asking. It’s a new dawn, I feel.

As I look ahead to the kind of work I do (music, education and mental health), I’ve been reading through research articles, some dating back 20 years.

There was an interesting review of the book titled The Healing Environment: Without and Within. In his review, Michael Baum critiques the wishy-washy sentiments of arts-based practices in the book, but he also encourages the need for arts-based interventions. The challenge, as far as I can tell, is that many of the arts-based therapies that are used in healing tend to lack the kind of scientific rigour that other health practices have to endure – like medicine, for example.

However, it was this statement that stood out for me:

“How many of us have homes that are empty of pictures. with walls an institutional cream colour? The benefits of art, literature, poetry and music are givens within our culture, experienced by all: and their life-enhancing effects are common experience.”

This was Baum’s sentiment in 2004. At the time, the world hadn’t a sniff of Covid19, nor lockdown… and everything was, well, different. At one point in his previous writings, he refers to a “more mature consideration” of quantifying the arts and science together in the same juncture. His punch line? 

“The humanities and the sciences have their particular roles in the practice of medicine. The notion of evidence-based art is as absurd as an Impressionist school of science.”

Michael Baum, Evidence-based art?

It seems, from what he’s saying, that most people gravitate to the arts instinctively, and there’s no need to explain it. Music creates atmosphere. Art makes our homes inviting and beautiful. A sense of theatre and dramatic timing is what we default to when we host people – perhaps not in an operatic way, but certainly in the simplicity making people feel welcome.

However, at this particular point in history (December 2021), I would say there’s never been a more valid time than for science and the creative arts to find common ground.

Here’s a few reasons why.

Authorities Are Weary Of Artists

This might seem like a strange point to start with, but it stems from a conversation I had with a university lecturer. Her words were stark: “If you are in a position of power – say government – and you want people to toe the line, the last field you are going to advocate is anything to do with humanities and the arts.”

I couldn’t help myself. “Why?” I asked.

“Well,” she expounded, “the arts field examines whether you are in touch with your emotional health, self-regulation and your ability to problem solve and simultaneously critically evaluate. Anyone who can do that isn’t going to merely say ‘yes’ to someone in charge.”

(This is an interesting notion, and probably worth a blog post on its own.)

However, the benefits of music therapy and similar are already gaining momentum in the treatment of dementia, autism and other conditions – sometimes even more so than medicine.

Additionally – on a policy level – politicians generally bow to numbers, and if the scientific rigour that propels other things into the forefront of altruistic public policy, surely the same could be done with arts-based interventions?

Assisting Health Practitioners

Following on from this thought, and given the global condition of the world in 2021, I would say without too much doubt that the state of mental health is tinkering on a knife edge. I sat with a psychologist friend of mine the other day who said to me: “There isn’t a psychologist in town who isn’t busy to the hilt.”

And what most psychologists will tell you as that common sense has gone out the window.

All you have to do is troll through your social media feed: you’ll see that your “friends” are sharing, advocating and preaching… well, crap. Fake news, horrid status updates and just plain weird memes are all par for the course nowadays.

Health practitioners need assistance in stabilising the ship, which has seen some rough waters over the last two years.

Science with art?

So let’s get back to the question: how does music help your mental health? That is what science needs to prove. Some studies already argue that it has.

Things have shifted, it seems. For a maverick like me, I’ve seen firsthand people arrive at a gig grumpy and leave happy. I know that it’s got something to do with tampering with their limbic systems, but I have no clue what I’m doing on a scientific level. And I’m curious to know.

My point is that we all instinctively know it. We all gravitate there when we need to, which nowadays is more often than not. However, funding and rigorous arguments for the advocation of arts-based therapies and interventions relies on cold, hard numbers…

…and that’s where we get to science with the arts. 

On the one hand, it could lead to far more economic and cost-saving therapies. For example, if there was scientifically-based proof that a whole population of people suffering with mental illness could substitute medicine in favour of a concert, or a theatre production, or a painting class… Surely we would?

Would the benefits of the latter outweigh the former? Both in terms of holistic health as well as specific needs?

Arguably, there has been work in these areas already, but more and more the sentiment from other academics and health practitioners is that these kinds of thoughts, ideas and questions should be prioritised on a national level when it comes to focus, as well as funding.

More to follow, but I’m interested: What do you think?

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