Art and spirits: the case of art as prescription medicine


Michelle Langstone is an award-winning freelance writer and actress. In this article, she explains how new research indicates that creative practice has a tangible positive impact on mental health and well-being. In New Zealand, creativity as a tool for improving well-being is increasingly taking root in our cities.

Zulfirman Syah struggled to sleep after the 2019 terrorist attack at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque.

“I was racked with guilt for taking my son to the mosque with me that day,” he says.

Both Syah and her baby boy were injured, and it took Syah months to get out of bed unaided. Long after healing from gunshot wounds, the New Zealand Indonesian artist struggled with anxiety, depression and fear.

“I think I almost hit rock bottom. I was terrified of going out in public, I cried a lot at night.”

But reconnecting with his art freed Syah from the anxiety that tormented him on a daily basis.

“The process of creating art became a way for me to escape from trauma and my troubled mental state.”

Creative expression can offer these things to anyone, he says — it’s an adaptable experience.

“I think the overall process of creativity, regardless of the medium, can promote a better mental state and improve emotional regulation.”

Syah’s perspective is both incredibly specific to the challenges he faced after March 15 and emblematic of a broader and deeper understanding of the ability of creative practice to positively benefit the well-being of people who engage in it. New studies reveal that engaging in arts and cultural practices has tangible benefits not only for mental health, but also for overall mood and quality of life.

These practices may become increasingly necessary in the future. Globally, the deterioration of mental health is on the rise. The medical journal The Lancet reports a dramatic increase in mental distress since 2020 and the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic. For many of us, everyday life has changed dramatically in ways that are difficult to manage.

The arts may be the answer. The UK-based What Works Center for Wellbeing reported in April 2022 that a study from the University of London found that engaging in art, culture and community had a positive impact on the well-being in many ways, and furthermore, those who participate in arts activities more than once a week experienced greater life satisfaction and lower levels of mental distress.

To harness these benefits, programs such as the non-profit Arts on Prescription – a growing global movement – demonstrate how deeply engaging in art and creativity – whether to attend classes, to visit galleries and theaters, or to write and read poetry – has a positive impact on the quality of life. Like “green prescriptions” for general health, prescription art examines additional creative stimuli that can help an individual feel better.

In New Zealand, communities and organizations that place art and culture at the heart of well-being are on the rise. Nowhere is this more evident than Ōtautahi, Christchurch. The city is still struggling with the aftermath of the 2011-2012 earthquakes which took the lives of many people and had a long-term impact on mental health and well-being. The 2019 terrorist attack on the city’s Muslim population compounded that trauma, adding to the pressure on a city that is still finding its feet. The fallout from these two events deeply affected the communities and the city as a whole.

Kim Morton founded Ōtautahi Creative Spaces in response to the call for misfortune and distress she felt around her city after the earthquakes. The center aims to help people improve their mental health and well-being by engaging in regular art practice, one-to-one lessons, exhibitions and connecting to a supportive community.

Morton’s voice sounds like a comforting hot drink as she describes what she regularly observes at OCS.

“A lot of artists we work with say it’s more helpful than counseling, it’s more helpful than medication. Our mental health system relies heavily on medication and talking therapies, and we know that isn’t enough. It has an important place, obviously, but it’s not enough for people to thrive.”

Morton, who was awarded the Winston Churchill Fellowship for his work and is a member of Te Ora Auaha, a national creative wellness network, investigated how the international prescription arts model could work here in Aotearoa. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the struggle for validity facing the arts and culture sector in Aotearoa, the government does not significantly support such a model.

Not yet anyway. Ōtautahi is exactly the right place to create prescription art prototype to work alongside traditional medical practice. Morton mentions a new initiative called Te Tumu Waiora (“heading for wellness”) that places “health enhancement practitioners” in GP clinics across Aotearoa to help with holistic wellness.

In the meantime, she hopes more organizations like OCS will spring up across the country, so that art-based prescriptions can be part of the alternative healing modalities offered in the healthcare system, available to everyone.

Artist Catherine Brougham has been working with OCS for three years now.

“I felt very alone and lost because of what happened to Christchurch and everyday life after the earthquakes,” she says.

A multidisciplinary artist, Brougham says OCS has given him a sense of worth and worth.

When the pandemic hit, she found it triggered the same worries and depression as earthquakes.

“The anxiety and uncertainty of what happened… what will happen next?

Classes and weekly check-ins from OCS, even via Zoom, have helped her navigate the country’s lockdowns. In art, she found profound relief from her mental distress – so much so, she says with a hint of surprise and laughter in her voice, that she doesn’t really consider herself anxious anymore.

Audrey Baldwin, a familiar face in the Ōtautahi art scene, is another art practitioner and performer who has found relief through her practice. Her work has a long history of connectedness, exploring the intimacy and vulnerability of the human spirit.

Her 2021 project, Art Chemist, was a literal pop-up pharmacy in Ōtautahi where she and other artists dispensed arts-based prescriptions to anyone who entered the streets. The dispensary was consciously created to provide a space where visitors could decompress: “The physical aspect is quite important; we’ve got the mink blankets, we’ve got the salt lamps, that kind of dim light, I’ve got a nice aromatherapy of the scents in the space… all of that contributes to something that’s going to calm your nervous system,” she says . “And just take a moment.”

People appreciated the option of receiving an over-the-counter prescription or participating in a consultation and having a custom script written just for them.

“Everyone who got involved almost always wanted full consultation,” she says. It was a unique concoction for each customer.

“I would think of it as a chemist; you add different ingredients. So I would usually do about two or three different pieces of art, or communities or events that might be related to that.”

The Chemist Art.

Audrey Baldwin.

The Chemist Art.

Baldwin’s art pharmacy extended to all art forms, from poetry to performance to the visual arts. It worked so well that she took the apothecary to Wellington, where townspeople enjoyed the repeated sharing of Baldwin’s artwork like the 2019 terror attack memorial mural, Weaving Hope. .

This piece inspires unity and inclusion, concepts that Baldwin returned to again and again in the capital: the Art Chemist operated during the occupation of parliamentary grounds in February this year, when tensions in the city were incredibly high.

“To me, this work is about how often when humanity has horrible things, that’s when we really come out, at our most beautiful, and the community really comes out. And the beauty of humanity shines.”

Baldwin said the city’s restless and restless psyche during this volatile time was palpable, but the dispensary dispensed prescriptions to hundreds of people during the time it was open, and she found the mood around the job incredibly uplifting. . Baldwin says that rather than feeling diminished or exhausted by what was happening outside, she and the other practitioners were energized. It is not only those who receive artistic endeavors who experience an improvement in their well-being.

It’s not just the traumatized who benefit from connecting with their creativity. Arts and culture are uplifting for everyone. Kim Morton and I talk about the adult coloring craze that swept the world a few years ago, and how, when given permission, adults everywhere happily engaged in coloring, finding it joyful and relaxing. The positive mental health benefits were even highlighted in a study from the University of Otago. They are also considered to have a powerful impact on our wellbeing in Creative New Zealand’s New Zealanders and Arts research. Art is an important part of the school curriculum until it becomes an elective in college: so why do we reject the opportunity to play and create as adults?

Artists at Otautahi Creative Spaces.

Ana Craw

Artists at Otautahi Creative Spaces.

“So many people we work with say, ‘I loved art in school, then I quit,'” Morton says.

“Sometimes it’s about unleashing the creativity that we loved. At what age does it stop? Kids play, it’s accepted, but as adults we don’t play, really. There is an invisible line, and once you cross it…social the value is placed on other things.What we want to do is change those attitudes so that social value and social investment is realized in access to creativity.

As the pandemic continues and the world grapples with issues ranging from runaway economic inflation to war, creativity is something we can return to not just individually, but to participate in as a whole. collective. Space 22, a bold new six-part documentary series from Australia, explores the impact that art and creativity can have on mental health.

New Zealand practitioners linking various forms of creative expression to improved mental health are part of a global movement benefiting all of humanity – a movement that will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in the times to come. .

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? which highlights the transformative benefits of well-being and hauora brought about by the arts, culture and creativity. You can read the whole series here.

This article first appeared on Together and is republished with permission.

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