Image: Charisse Kenion/ Unsplash

How the arts can ease people’s experience in the NHS

It’s a running joke amongst students that an ‘artsy’ degree like film or creative writing is less valuable than maths or engineering. The value of arts within society is often overlooked or underappreciated – with scholarships regularly aimed towards STEM subjects and excluding other less ‘practical’ degrees like English. The arts are seen as simply a hobby unless you’re lucky enough to be Banksy or Beyoncé.

Right here, in Coventry and Warwickshire, that’s all beginning to change. A charity-funded venture called the Healing Arts Programme looks to use the arts to ease people’s experience in hospitals as well as supplementing hospital treatments. The Healing Arts Programme is a part of the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire (UHCW) and has three main sections: Exhibitions, Artist-Led Workshops and Music, and the Art Cart. The programme is fairly new, starting in 2015, and relies heavily on donations and volunteers. However, the work that they do is truly inspiring and important to those living as inpatients in University Hospital.

The arts are seen as simply a hobby unless you’re lucky enough to be Banksy or Beyoncé

Art is being used to supplement treatment in several ways. One way is through murals, which decrease the anxiety or fear that a clinical environment can provoke; they also create conversation and bring people together in what can be an isolating and boring environment, when sitting in a hospital bed all day. In the annual review of the project, one patient writes that the live music performances are “just the tonic we needed to keep spirits up”, which serves as a reminder that sometimes recovery is mental as well as physical.

I met a student here at Warwick, Alexandra, who proved to me just how life-changing the arts can be. Back when she was applying for university, the pressure from her parents to choose a more ‘academic’ degree – think medicine or law – was pressing. Despite that, she still followed her passion and applied to study Film and Literature. But exam pressure and family difficulties led to a much more serious problem. Alexandra was losing weight, and quickly. In under two years, she lost over half her original body weight and she was hospitalised with anorexia nervosa. The physical effects were taking their toll: she couldn’t carry her books to school, let alone walk up two flights of stairs. The mental impact was much worse. Alexandra miraculously passed her exams with incredibly good marks, but when she found out she felt nothing – no joy, no relief, simply nothing.

In the annual review of the project, one patient writes that the live music performances are “just the tonic we needed to keep spirits up”

Anorexia nervosa is still vastly misunderstood by medical professionals and Alexandra explained to me how frustrating it was to feel like she was a criminal. She felt like no one was listening to her and no one understood how she felt. She was reaching the end of her tether. The change happened when her mother bought her a book: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It was hard to start – her lack of concentration made it difficult to read more than a few sentences at a time. But she persevered and soon began to eat again. It wasn’t easy as her stomach was unused to food – she was constantly nauseous and describes the pain as like being punched. However, books became a source of comfort, helping the long days pass and preventing her from being hospitalised again.

With mental health problems, you can’t just ‘switch them off’. They take time to recover from, and many sufferers will attest that you never completely return back to the way you were before. Starting university was not simple. For Alexandra, she struggled to make friends because she was so used to being alone. She poured her time into her work and never went out, feeling anxious and having panic attacks. Then one day she took a walk to the Arts Centre. She began going to see plays, to the cinema, to hear the string orchestra. Although she was not speaking to anyone, she started to feel again.

As we finish speaking, Alexandra tells me that the arts have saved her life and she tries to reassure me that she is not over-exaggerating and honestly, I don’t know how you could think that she was. The arts granted Alexandra an opportunity to escape her personal difficulties and gave her the opportunity to experience another world; they allowed her to feel and relearn what it is to be alive. This is a testament to the arts and their power, as much as it is a testament to Alexandra’s own strength.

The arts granted Alexandra an opportunity to escape her personal difficulties and gave her the opportunity to experience another world

Alexandra’s story is an incredible one and proves how important the Healing Arts Programme must be in a clinical environment. It allows patients to feel at ease and, as much as possible, positive about the future – something the arts help dramatically with. However, the arts can also help with physical problems, as another student (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains to me.

This student suffers from scoliosis (an abnormal curvature in the spine). They were diagnosed aged 14 and the doctor told them they were on the cusp of needing surgery. Despite the severity of their condition, however, the cosmetic and physical issues of their case were not half as bad as people with a similar acuteness of scoliosis. The doctor explained that they did not look as deformed and didn’t have the same levels of pain as would be expected, and they responded better to physiotherapy than expected. When the physiotherapist found out about the many years of ballet that this student had been doing, it all clicked into place. The physiotherapist told them that because they had been doing ballet since they were seven, they had been taught to be very aware of how they stood. This meant that despite the physical deformity in the spine, their back was still strong enough to maintain good posture, in turn alleviating the pain and helping them to better respond to treatment by the physio.

Not only this, but the long-term effects of ballet training meant that people with physical difficulties could still continue to enjoy dance, with minor modifications. They were lucky enough to have a teacher who never let them use their condition as an opportunity to slack and give in to bad posture. For the most part, they tell me that their life is no different to anyone else and that they honestly believe it is ballet that has made this possible. Whilst ballet is not going to be an effective treatment for everyone, its impact in this case – preventing someone from needing surgery – is quite remarkable, especially as surgery likely would have affected their ability to dance in the future. I believe this goes to show that treatment comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and that the importance of the arts should not be diminished – especially in this instance, as so many of us have bad posture from working at desks.

The long-term effects of ballet training meant that people with physical difficulties could still continue to enjoy dance

One group of people the Healing Arts Programme has been trying to help is those with communications and cognitive impairments and dementia. Participation in arts of varying kinds, from music to painting, can help patients to reminisce but also validate their present reality. This can be particularly crucial for those with dementia. The difficulties posed by verbal communication are often bypassed through the artistic process and having a project to work on can improve concentration and attention. Long term, this can make patients easier to care for once the therapy is over, relieving some of the stress of the family who cares for them. Participation in art therapy aids not only the patient but also those who work or live with them.

The Healing Arts Programme is hoping to extend its outreach through continuing its existing work, as well as developing new partnerships in Coventry and Warwickshire. Hopefully, with more research and higher funding, projects like this can be used to prevent hospitalisation and interruption to people’s lives and provide the support needed to ensure that anyone struggling can still enjoy a normal life. This will not only be beneficial to the patients and their families but also will help relieve some of the strain on the NHS hospital services. The arts might not cure cancer, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t still be valuable in a clinical context. In fact, in some instances, the arts can be more beneficial than popping pills and sitting for endless hours in waiting rooms. I hope that as time progresses, more people will realise the value of the arts and help end the stigma surrounding them, from degrees to welfare. 

You can find Coventry and Warwickshire’s Healing Arts Programme here


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