The importance of the arts in health and wellbeing | Louis Laganà

While practising the arts are not a universal treatment and solution for mental health issues, there is enough evidence to show that giving importance to the arts in peoples’ lives can contribute to a better lifestyle and wellbeing

Paintings at Antoine De Paule Hall at San Anton Gardens
Paintings at Antoine De Paule Hall at San Anton Gardens

Prof. Louis Laganà, Faculty for Social Wellbeing

Today one finds an unprecedented strong relationship between the engagement of the creative arts, health, and the wellbeing of society. There is evidence that the arts have an effective means to reduce adverse psychological and physiological impacts. The arts help us meet challenges in health and social concerna associated with ageing, loneliness, social integration, long-term conditions, and mental health. In the last few years, psychologists, and health professionals started to study how the arts may heal emotional and mental injuries, reduce adverse symptoms and even heal individuals.

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The number of people in Malta and their participation in the creative arts is lower than that of other European countries. Therefore, it is difficult to determine how the arts impact individuals, the extent to which they bring joy, increase self-esteem, and improve mental and improve physical wellbeing. There is certainly a rise in the levels of depression and anxiety among youth, older persons, foreign nationals, and people with special needs. So, the challenges are momentous, and require serious educational programmes of mitigation.

Mental health and the arts

The World Health Organization estimates that mental ill-health accounts for 20% more than cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Our country has an ageing population, and many people experience physical inactivity with the result of obesity, mental stress, and anxiety. The arts seem to have an important role to promote wellbeing and social inclusion.

Getting involved in the arts and cultural activities such as music, theatre, dance and visiting museums can have a powerful lasting effect on our health and wellbeing. It can also help to support mental health issues and recovery. Most art forms can help people to improve their communication skills and mental health issues through creativity. As they are expressing themselves in various forms of creativity, people are encouraged to communicate themselves, without having to use words. During the COVID-19 pandemic many people had to self-isolate and so turned to the arts and creativity. This came from an innate desire to use the brains and the creative powers to make them feel good. The Arts are not only beneficial for young children or adolescents, but also important during adulthood and later life.

While practising the arts are not a universal treatment and solution for mental health issues, there is enough evidence to show that giving importance to the arts in peoples’ lives can contribute to a better lifestyle and wellbeing. 

Funding and the arts in health work

Malta is rich in its arts and culture, so a serious programme must be drawn up by all the stakeholders working in the arts and mental health sectors to provide a long-term framework to specific organisations. This should include participatory arts programmes and arts engagement in everyday life.

The Malta Council for the Arts could be the catalyst to fund projects and help local organisations to create programmes related to the arts and mental health, and the citizens’ wellbeing. As the World Health Organization underlines, “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity; the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” The arts, therefore, can contribute to our complete wellbeing.

The first thing to be done is to include the arts in health work. The proper clinical and healthcare environment with public spaces should offer a distracting atmosphere to patients, staff, and the general public.

Secondly, participatory community and hospital-based arts programmes and projects should be introduced. Arts and craft activities provide opportunities for people to engage with each other and their own creativity which will improve their sense of wellbeing. Studies have shown that the creative process and expression, influence peoples’ lives over ill health and can result in reduced dependence on medicine.

The introduction of medical training and humanities would play an important role of the arts to develop the practice of medicine and the understanding of wellbeing. Medical courses and training should incorporate the arts so that the practice of healthcare is humanised. In most European countries, arts therapies have become an established psychotherapeutic tool used by qualified therapists with patients and clients. Unfortunately, there are no university or college courses in arts therapy in Malta.

During these last six years, I have attempted many times to introduce such courses, but it seems that the local education establishments lack interest and enthusiasm to set up a general course in arts therapies. Most of the local students interested in a career as an art therapist, usually go to study abroad at another foreign institution.

There are only a few qualified art therapists in Malta, who actually struggle to find a job in this growing field. Arts therapists should be registered directly with the Health Professions Council and not just registered with the Psychotherapy Association to obtain a working warrant.

Artistic expression and creativity grew in conformity with cultural development and have a long and integral part in how we teach, learn, communicate, and heal. The arts are exceptionally appropriate to help us understand and communicate ideas and emotions by drawing on all our senses and facilitates empathy.

In recent years, we have come to understand the fundamental health benefits of artistic and leisure activities. The arts can help us emotionally to find a way to battle an illness or injury, and to handle difficult emotions in times of crisis and trauma. The enjoyment of the arts helps us to promote holistic wellness and become a motivating factor in recovery.

Therefore, including the arts in healthcare delivery has shown to increase optimistic clinical outcomes for patients while also support other stakeholders, health care providers, patients, and their loved ones.