Policy recognition needed for proven link between participation in the arts and enhanced well-being.

13 Mar 2019

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Michael  Moynahan
Posted by Michael Moynahan

Chairman of the Arts Council of New Zealand

Weaving at te awahou nieuwe stroom

Aotearoa’s so-called ‘quiet’ crisis – the ongoing increase in mental health issues – has seen the benefit of many public, emphatic and diligent voices demanding change in recent years.

In early 2018 the Government acknowledged that something needs to be done to improve New Zealanders’ mental health and well-being, initiating the Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction: Oranga Tāngata, Oranga Whānau. In March the Government intends to release its formal response to the inquiry’s 40 recommendations.

While we welcomed the inquiry and subsequent report, He Ara Oranga, we felt there was a missed opportunity in that none of the report’s 40 recommendations specifically acknowledged that involvement in the arts improves personal health and well-being.

­We believe the arts have an essential role to play, along with other treatments, in supporting better health outcomes for New Zealanders, particularly in the mental health space.

In our submission to the inquiry we advocated for specific funding to support:

  • the introduction of arts prescription schemes
  • creative spaces, directly and consistently to a level that allows them to both sustain and grow their services for people all around Aotearoa.

An ‘arts prescription’ is written advice from a health professional to get involved in some form of the arts as a means of improving a patient’s health and well-being. This could involve many forms of self-expression including visual arts, music, dance and theatre. Similar schemes are already in place in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada. New Zealand is no stranger to this prescription concept, having introduced the ‘green prescription’ in 2004 to increase patients’ exercise and improve their diet.

Community arts spaces throughout our country provide communities with access to different artforms in environments that encourage and support self-expression. Many of them provide for those who use mental health services, people with disabilities, the elderly, young people and different cultures. And they do this with very little funding and resourcing.

Associate Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Carmel Sepuloni has requested more research and information about the contribution New Zealand’s creative spaces make towards better well-being, and we’re assisting with this work alongside the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the Ministry of Social Development, Office for Disability Issues and Arts Access Aotearoa. We hope this work will help inform future policy and decisions about acknowledging and supporting these vital contributors to our society.

There’s a growing body of research that shows the arts contribute to both the well-being of individuals and the social cohesion of communities.

In the United Kingdom, and other countries with similar challenges to ours, research has provided evidence that participating in the arts improves quality of life and assists in recovery from mental and physical illness. Broadly, shared activities and experiences across the arts promote unified communities and enhance human interactions. This is particularly important as our population ages and we continue to see an increase in our people experiencing mental illness and suffering.

Our own research tells us that many New Zealanders understand the benefits the arts bring to their personal health and well-being, as well as to the wider community. The results of Creative New Zealand’s 2017 longitudinal research into New Zealanders’ attitudes to, attendance at and participation in the arts – New Zealanders and the arts – support this:

  • Four in ten (41 percent) New Zealanders agree with the statement ‘the arts improve how I feel about life in general’
  • Just over half (55 percent) of Māori agree that ‘ngā toi Māori [Māori arts] improve how I feel about life in general’
  • Nearly six in ten (57 percent) New Zealanders agree with the statement ‘the arts help improve New Zealand society’
  • Half (50 percent) of New Zealanders agree with the statement ‘my community would be poorer without the arts’.

He Ara Oranga did acknowledge that many of the solutions lie with families, whānau, communities and social services, and also in new ways of thinking about the problems affecting us.

We are calling on policy and decision-makers to formally recognise the contribution the arts make to well-being and a better functioning community. This approach will serve us well as we all take the first steps towards a more fitting and sustainable approach to mental health in Aotearoa.

Arts Insiders: Winning arts and minds, Michael Moynahan interviewed by The Big Idea (2 April 2019)