I came to Arts and Health South West in 2012 from a background in arts and media education and latterly leadership development for the culture and leisure sector. I had a long term commitment to the importance of active engagement with culture at all levels of the education system.
“Culture is what you grow people in.”
Through working with and helping grow Arts and Health South West’s brilliant staff team I have learned a huge amount about the unique contribution arts work makes to human health and wellbeing. Currently there is alarm at a national level about the precarious mental health of young people which we had already identified as a priority area of work in our business plan.
This resonates particularly for me as I reflect on my own pathway through life. When I was a teenager more than fifty years ago there were no mobile phones, social media or even day time TV. A tense set of family relationships exploded as I reached adolescence and I was intensely alone dealing with it. Novels, poetry, singing, theatre and performance came to my aid. Reading, listening to and performing other people’s experience gave me space and permission to begin to understand the pains – and occasional joys – of leading an adult life.
A few years ago when I was giving a talk on the importance of arts education, I alluded briefly to my own experience and found myself saying, “It saved my life.” It was the bare truth. It did. It does.
I joined Arts and Health South West because Alex told me to……there is some truth in that statement but, for those who know me, you will also know that Alex was pushing at an open door.
I am an accountant by training but came to it from a degree in English Literature and to my degree through O’levels and A’Levels in Art and Art History. In my early years Literature, Art and Music were my escape and solace from study, exams, Balance Sheets and Profit & Loss Accounts, and this remains true today.
In the 1990’s I left practice with one of the largest Accountancy firms and started work in the National Health Service. I have worked in the NHS for the last 28 years, in Acute Hospitals, Mental Health Hospitals, Teaching Hospitals, Commissioning and the Regional structures of the NHS. I have been lucky to see the impact of all forms of the arts on the health and wellbeing of patients and carers across the health service. I have seen stunning examples of very vulnerable people cradled through ill-health in the arms of some wonderful arts practitioners.
As I move towards the end of my career in the Health Service, I feel an obligation to pass on those experiences and to do what I can to help others understand the value that the Arts bring to health, the vulnerable and the lonely. Arts and Health South West’s values absolutely reflect my sense of obligation and I am grateful to Alex for realising that, even before I did.
Director / Trustee
I’ve managed creative wellbeing programmes for over 20 years, working with Creativity Works since 2004 and other fantastic organisations mainly in the south west. I enable a joined-up response to health and social issues through creative partnerships with artists and volunteers using a community development approach. I work with some inspirational people and communities in the voluntary sector, health, social care, education, museums and culture. Sustainable models of development particularly interest me and I’ve developed and supported the set-up of creative peer-led groups over many years.
The positive impacts of participating in creative activities and the feedback from people is continually inspiring and includes new skills, improved confidence to new friendship groups and links to community. Examples of projects I manage include the ‘Fresh Art@ Bath’ project developed since 2014. This innovative partnership project supports creative pathways to wellbeing from acute care settings to the community and museums. Quotes include: “Whilst in the group, being with others and engaging with the artwork, I can forget my physical symptoms.”
Another example is the ‘My Time My Space’ project running since 2005 providing a supportive, relaxed and creative environment for women experiencing postnatal depression/ anxiety. Amongst the many positive outcomes there is a reduction in postnatal depression and reduced social isolation and I regularly hear comments like the following: “I have made friends who understand me and it has helped me through some of my darkest moments”, “I was worried I had to be arty, but it wasn’t like that at all, I found I could just be myself”, “it has been an inspiration, a journey of re-discovery”.
Creativity has woven its way through my life in many ways (singing, dancing, writing, painting, visual arts, textiles …), giving me space to explore, unwind, have fun, journey through challenging times and grow. I can relate to some of the feelings of some participants on projects I have run as over 20 years ago I had the rug pulled from beneath me after a head injury and I found myself in a place where I had not been before. My growth from this place came from connecting with myself creatively and being with family and friends. I subsequently trained as a yoga teacher, with continual ongoing studies, as I am fascinated by the link between the mind and body and the physiological impact of movement and arts on wellbeing.
Being part of Arts and Health South West as a trustee since 2011 is wonderful. I really value the support, ideas sharing, networking and positivity that this involves. I’m passionate about the power of creativity to inspire people and communities, new ways of working and the impacts of creativity on wellbeing and mental health.
I am passionate about the need for caring and healing to reclaim their rightful positions as key elements within healthcare. I believe that the dominance of the biomedical, materialistic, reductionist paradigm within modern medicine, driven largely by the financial greed of the pharmaceutical and medical device companies, has led to most of us believing that technology can cure all our ills. It cannot. It works well for many acute medical problems (blocked tubes, broken bones, some infections) but the current model does not work for chronic disease and ‘dis-ease’ (particularly chronic pain and the so-called ‘mental health disorders’) all of which are increasing alarmingly in frequency.
Healing means regaining your integrity and wholeness, and being able to function well inspite of health problems (flourishing).
Essential elements on the path to healing are making connections with other living things (often fellow humans), and reframing your problems to provide them with new meaning. To be able to connect and reframe our problems, we need to feel safe and to trust others.
Art and creative activities allow us to make new connections, and to find new meaning in safe environments – to change our narratives of ourselves and our place in the world, thus facilitating the healing process.
And art and creative practices are very individual issues – for some it will be music, for others poetry, and so on. Furthermore, we need to distinguish between active and passive involvement in the arts – between ‘seeing/hearing’ and ‘doing’.
For me, passive arts involvement is about going to the theatre and museums, listening to music and reading novels. Active involvement includes writing stories and carving wood.
When I was suffering from PTSD, following being held hostage in Kuwait and Iraq for 5 months, my healing journey was dependent on three things: 1) The love and support of family and friends, 2) Being in natural spaces (the beautiful English countryside and the sea), where I could feel safe and know that I was part of something bigger (and that I could ‘connect’). 3) Art – going to live theatre performances, listening to music, and reading and writing stories to make sense of what had happened to me, and carving wood. So art was a major part of my recovery, and biomedicine did not contribute.
As a young GP new to the blood, sweat and tears of clinical practice I quickly learned that ten minute consultations are but a drop in the ocean of suffering for many, our input limited and lacking. I came to see that patient wellbeing or lack of it, was affected by much more than just physical symptoms and their treatments but included also relationships and their breakdowns, social factors and pressures, lifestyle choices, griefs, challenges and pressures of all kinds that people face.
I saw that people and communities had resources that they were often unaware of and wondered if they might be released through other means. That was why from 2007-2011 I partnered with another GP to secure funding and offer both creative writing and arts based sessions in 12 week blocks for our patients. Through the nurturing facilitation of our artist and poet and the strength of relationships and sharing established by patients, new friendships were formed, confidence found, courses started and life-giving choices made e.g. moving away from difficult neighbours etc. Participants found a ‘voice’ they didn’t know they had, found ‘sense[s] awakened’ and experienced ‘personal and emotional growth’.
‘I’ve benefitted from these sessions, I’ve let things go. I notice more about my surrounds, seasons, colours…’
‘It was very good for my health, tablets don’t help problems that are stuck inside’
Finally, when the world turned full circle and I became a cancer patient myself, the opportunity to write into the darkness was part of my journey back into life.
Many of us know instinctively that the arts are good for us. I want to help to tell stories that demonstrate the value of the arts for wellbeing, through statistics and evidence, and through compelling case studies that appeal to people’s emotions.
Although I have worked on a wide range of arts and health projects to raise their profile, in my former role at Arts Council England and now as a freelance consultant, it wasn’t until I had direct personal experience that I realised just how powerful the arts can be.
A friend of mine, a musician like me, was living in a dementia care home. She didn’t recognise people she knew and wasn’t always very responsive, so some friends and I went to play string quartets at the home where she was living. When we arrived, Julie didn’t recognise us or pay us any attention. Many of the other residents had come to listen to us play, and it was just before Christmas, so we played a few carols and well-known light music. Then we began to play quartets that she knew – Mozart and Haydn, and an arrangement of some Corelli that I had played with Julie several times. I could see her as I played, and over a period of time, she was transformed from a person sitting motionless and looking blank, to an engaged audience member enjoying the music. When we finished playing, she stood up and made a short speech to thank us for coming to play in her home. We went over to speak to her, and she said to one of the other members of the quartet, “you’re so lucky having Gillian to lead, she’s such a good player.” An hour previously, she hadn’t known who I was, and now she was chatting animatedly. It felt something truly magical had happened.
Julie really needed someone to play for her every day to help her to be herself and to engage with others. We all need the arts, but those in healthcare and social care settings, particularly so. My story is just one small example of how the arts can make a profound difference to people’s lives. I see my role as a board member for Arts & Health South West as a way to help to develop more opportunities for people to benefit from the arts for their health and wellbeing.
Photo: Jim Wileman
Will is a junior doctor working in the South West, he became interested in arts and health after entering a creative enquiry prize as a student at Barts and the London. He has volunteered with the Arts on Referral programme at Southmead Hospital and organised staff creative writing workshops for doctors as a way of managing stress and building relationships with colleagues. He is hoping to train in general practice and bring his enthusiasm about arts and wellbeing to his medical practice.
Director / Trustee
Bio and Photo coming soon
Director / Trustee
Samya is a 4th year medical student, with an intercalated BSc in Global Health at the University of Bristol. She’s volunteered with Off the Record (young’s people’s mental health charity) as a Young Advisor/Trustee and as the Chair of the Wellfest Committee. ‘Wellfest’ is a wellbeing festival for young peoples’ positive mental health, providing opportunities for them to get involved with services in fun, safe and engaging manner.
Samya has worked as a course rep, peer mentor and involved with various societies including Student’s for Global Health and Nutritank with the University. In her role as a Young Trustee at Off the Record she helped shape the charity’s 5 Year Business Plan in collaboration with the CEO and contributed to work with Bristol CCG.
She is passionate about challenging injustice, creating space for young people and championing diversity in education and healthcare, though her work as a BME Success Advocate at the University and nationally as a member of the NHS Youth Forum. In 2018 was selected as ‘Bristol’s 24 under 24 Most Influential Bristolians’ by Rife magazine.
Martin R White
Director / Trustee
Bio and Photo coming soon
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