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Wellbeing benefits when we participate in the arts

Mental health touches everyone: families and communities across all regions of the country. Staying well in a world that can be confronting and confusing is of vital importance to the overall health of Aotearoa and everyone who lives here, writes Richard Benge, Executive Director, Arts Access Aotearoa.

Those of us in the arts sector – particularly the community arts sector – are constantly learning about arts projects and programmes that improve and nourish participants’ wellbeing and resilience.

There are daily examples from more than 65 creative spaces throughout New Zealand that illustrate the significant benefits of arts participation to our wellbeing. These spaces offer a place where people can be creative and make art in an empowering and inclusive environment.

But as in any field, research is vital to confirm what we already know anecdotally. There’s already plenty of overseas and New Zealand evidence on the health benefits of creativity.

Findings from a recent survey conducted by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage for Hon Carmel Sepuloni, Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Minister for Social Development and Minister for Disability Issues have just been released in a report called Understanding the Value of Creative Spaces.

The aim of the survey was to provide insights into what creative spaces offer, their strengths and resources, and the challenges they face providing enough arts programmes to meet the demand and needs of people in their communities.

Findings show that all creative spaces that participated in the survey listed the key benefits for their participating artists as social interaction, increased confidence, improved wellbeing, increased creative expression/skills, increased self-esteem and a sense of belonging. Almost all (95-97%) also listed other benefits as communication skills, connection with their local community and self-development.

Other key findings show that creative spaces cater for a wide range of disabilities, including mental illness (86%), intellectual disabilities (83%) and learning disabilities (81%).

Most creative spaces (84%) provide exhibitions or performances of their client artists’ work, with a similar proportion (79%) providing artistic skill development or training.

The report demonstrates the opportunity and value that creative spaces offer policymakers and funders wanting to deliver greater wellbeing outcomes to people in need of support. Creative spaces have proven programmes and structures in place, and it makes sense to support them so they can strengthen and expand their services.

The Government’s announcement back in May of a $1.9 billion boost in funding to help address the mental health crisis is very welcome. Among the major initiatives will be the establishment of a new frontline mental health service, expected to help 325,000 people with mild or moderate mental health needs by 2024.

Alongside the need for mental health specialists, there are other cost-effective and long-term solutions to improving, supporting and maintaining our wellbeing. Let’s take Christchurch, where mental health and wellbeing is of particular concern. In 2015, Ōtautahi Creative Spaces was set up in response to the high levels of mental illness, distress and trauma following the earthquakes.

Findings from research conducted for Ōtautahi Creative Spaces in 2018 showed the “profound” impact of its arts programmes on the artists’ mental health and wellbeing. Among the benefits that artists listed were developing new and positive mindsets, learning new skills, feeling pride in their achievements, and feeling more connected to family, friends and their communities.

In Wellington, Vincents Art Workshop will be opening its doors in August for another eight hours a week, including on Saturdays, thanks to additional funding from Wellington City Council.

More than 600 people were registered at Vincents with an active art plan between July 2018 and June 2019, compared to 480 people over the previous financial year.

Given the obvious demand on Vincents’ services, this is a very positive step forwards to increase the health and wellbeing of people in Wellington.

Vincents Art Workshop is an example of the demand for services throughout the creative spaces sector. The report reveals that four out of five (78%) creative spaces are unable to deliver all the services they want or need to. Increasing wellbeing investment in the services provided by creative spaces is an obvious, cost-effective way to improve and sustain people’s wellbeing and therefore reduce the numbers facing acute mental health crises.

As one survey respondent wrote: “Creative spaces are really important for our communities and our people. We need to be taken seriously and acknowledged for the contribution we make to healthy communities.”

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