AHSW's Director and Trustees reflect on various aspects of arts, health and wellbeing.
The Art of Health by Professor John Middleton
Professor John Middleton, President Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region, shares his views on how creativity can support an understanding of customs and beliefs which is vital in delivering better health, care, and public health services.
Culture is ‘the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time’. How can health, care and public health services function without an understanding of the customs and beliefs of the people we serve? There always appears to be something more important in our science and technology and little time for ‘softer issues’ like communication, understanding and empathy. Artists harness and express our shared beliefs and experiences, so we need them to help us deliver better health and care services. If we are to be effective in our work we must address custom and belief in a common language and through media which are accessible to all.
Public health is “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society” (Acheson, 1988; WHO)
A great deal has been written about the science of public health, especially in these pandemic times; but much less has been written about the art of public health.
I was Director of Public Health in a metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England, Sandwell, from 1988-2014. We tried to harness the skills of artists in support of a search for common understanding to improve health. We used art as communication and expression; art as information and intelligence; art as community development; arts in physical and mental health promotion; art as therapy; arts in healing, recovery, rehabilitation. We used photography, poetry and storytelling, multimedia, music, dance, design. We used and improved different resources and settings – libraries, gardens, museums, old factories, parks and shopping centres. We made social prescriptions before they were vogue- books on prescription, arts and dance on prescription.
Books on prescription Sandwell MBC and Sandwell PCT, 2010
Sandwell Library Services have always been active in their health and wellbeing offer – and combatting loneliness.
Sandwell Community Agriculture strategy 2012
People are assets for health improvement for themselves and their communities, not problems to be treated. Health services and communities can harness the arts through their roles as major landowners, employers, procurers of goods and services, and they can use their corporate citizenship role to invest in local supply and locally relevant services. There can also be a ‘health dividend’ through this work, growing the arts locally and using health services investment as an ‘anchor’, supporting local business and developing locally appropriate services.
The new digital era can be an engine for dangerous disinformation in the era of fake news- with tribal views nurtured in cyberspace. However, new digital technology can also be a democratizing force, in design for disability, for improving aesthetics, and for more effective communications for health.
The strongest driver of our arts and health work was always the involvement of our communities with artists contributing, on tap not on top. However, along the way there has been plenty of scope for some outstanding works of art, many sadly lost in the era when only online material survives. I have had the good fortune to be associated with inspirational artists like Geoff Broadway, Brendan Jackson, Bev Harvey, Roy Peters, Vanley Burke, Corinne Noordenbos, Annie Mahtani, Martin Parr, Jean Parker.
Roy Peters, photos, first annual public health report for Sandwell ‘Life and Death in Sandwell’,1989.
Vanley Burke, photos ‘Caribbean food and diets’ by Jenny Douglas, Sandwell public health research reports, no 1, 1989.
The sculptor Jean Parker brought her ‘Bald Statements’ to Sandwell on several occasions. She led workshops on her experience of cancer, diagnosis, treatment, recovery and grief, with great humility, humanity and humour, but there is no question as to the extraordinary artistic quality of her work.
J Jean Parker, Bald Statements 2008
Martin Parr, Black Country stories, 2010-11
Multistory’s commission of Corinne Noordenbos, ‘Black Country lungs’ has been a landmark collaboration between clinicians, patients and carers, and widely presented and shared with the wider community.
Corinne Noordenbos, Multistory, ‘Black Country Lungs’, 2018
Story tellers and poets like Brendan Hawthorne, Dave Reeves and Sue Hulse were regular contributors to health and social care events and community conferences. Musical colleagues from my other life were also part of the Sandwell community from pub gigs to community events- Dr Harp’s Medicine Band writing their prescription for the blues.
Dr Harp’s Medicine Band : ‘Dr Write Me A Prescription for the Blues, 2006.
Community arts organisations drove Sandwell Health Authority to recognise the role of the arts in improving health. Jubilee Arts, ThePublic, and Multistory have been key partners over the years and champions of the community voice in creativity and health promotion. As the Multistory site tells us: ‘We build meaningful connections between local communities and artists to produce creative projects that tell stories of everyday life’ and ‘It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times we live in’. Jubilee Arts were pioneers in multimedia, winning a BAFTA for their work with Geese Theatre on young offenders. They went on to build three multimedia productswith Sandwell Health Authority- on HIV, the award winning ‘Sex Get Serious’, on asthma, ‘Ease the Wheeze’ and drugs, ‘Buzz’. These were built with a large number of community inputs, and widely disseminated and used.
Jubilee Arts ‘Sex Get Serious’ Mutlimedia package, 1994
I am forever grateful to Sylvia King for her leadership of this work, first with Jubilee and then with ThePublic. She had an extraordinary vision to revitalize Sandwell’s post industrial community, harnessing the creativity of its many cultures, using the arts industry to generate economic prosperity, educational advancement and improve our environment and health. The vision was stifled through bureaucratic inertia, political jealousy and negativity. It is a vision that remains to be delivered, in a political climate in which ever less value is placed on the arts and culture.
Most recently, I have been privileged to work with the Bristol musician, Lady Nade and bass player Dan Everett, on a Dr Harp album, ‘Hearts and Minds’. Bill Wither’s anthem ‘Lean on Me’ has always been for me, a mental health promotion anthem; Nade’s version is up there with them. Lady Nade will be performing songs from her new album, Willing, at the Culture, Health and Wellbeing international conference. She was featured in the outstanding celebration of arts and health, ‘Creative Health’ produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing in 2017.
Lady Nade and band play at Bristol Children’s Hospital, Creative Health, Page 86; Lady Nade with Dr Harp, 2019.
In the United Kingdom, the outlook for the arts generally, and arts and health in particular, may not be an optimistic one. However, there is an extraordinary amount of talent and creativity out there. It is our responsibility and challenge to put it to work- to inspire us, move us, and improve our health. I believe the Culture, Health and Wellbeing international conference this June is a major opportunity to demonstrate what the arts has to offer, to improve and protect health, and to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of artists and health innovators who are making this a reality.
Written by Professor John Middleton, 10th May 2021.
President Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region.
John will be speaking at the 2nd day (22nd June) of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing International Conference. He will be speaking as part of a Keynote Panel on European Policy, during our thematic day on *POWER*.
Find out more about our Conference Programme HERE
Buy tickets HERE
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