The arts on prescription | Julie Zahra

Julia Zahra | Art and culture for health can provide the kind of social and psychological support which will be much needed as we rebuild and come together after the struggles of COVID-19

In these difficult and unprecedented times, more awareness needs to be raised of the social and psychological impact that COVID-19 is having on all of us. The fear of the unknown is one of the main factors that is affecting our mental well-being in a negative way. But there are many other issues whose impact will be less obvious but no less important.

As the mother of a lively and bubbly three-year-old girl, I worry especially about the social aspect of her psychological wellbeing. My daughter’s social interaction over the past year has been limited to a very small number of people – primarily just myself and her father. Her only interaction with other children has been through social media, and during her online school lessons. For years parents have been told that long periods of time spent on digital devices like tables, iPads, and computers, and in watching television or videos, is unhealthy for our children. That this can be seriously detrimental to their character development, attitudes and general well-being. And that children need social interaction to develop properly into happy, balanced adults.

This means that I feel terribly guilty about letting my daughter on her iPad for far longer than is recommended. Parents at times need to take decisions which go against what is ideal in normal times in order to adapt to the current circumstances for the good of their children. It is another difficult reality that we had to face throughout the past year!

I know that my daughter craves human interaction, just as we grown-ups do. Regardless of age, human beings are social animals. Our elderly deeply feel the loneliness of not being visited by their loved ones, while the younger generation are limited to social media to interact and pass the time by playing online games instead of developing healthy relationships with their peers. Younger children – especially those with no siblings – have suffered greatly from being unable to interact in a natural, relaxed and spontaneous way with other youngsters, at a time in their lives when creative play is so vital to their development.

I am a very positive person. But I am deeply concerned about the effects of what is being described as ‘the new normal’. And for those who were already struggling with distress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues before COVID-19 struck, the trauma they must be suffering is unimaginable. We urgently need to address these issues and look at ways to prevent long-term damage to our society and our mental health.

However, there is hope, and it comes from an unexpected direction! Recently I came across a very interesting paper written by Valerie Visanich and Toni Attard about the involvement of use of the Arts in Health and Social Care in Malta. I have been truly fascinated by it. The use of the arts in health and social care is called ‘The Arts on Prescription’ where group-based participation in social and creative activities such as art therapy and theatrical workshops are ‘prescribed’ for those suffering isolation, mental illness and emotional distress, instead of having medical interventions.

As you know, I am truly passionate about the arts! I strongly believe that there is a profound link between participation in the arts and a person’s well-being. ‘The Arts on Prescription’ is a concept I would like to see brought into all our communities in Malta, especially now, as we cope with the psychological and social impacts of the pandemic on our society and on our citizens.

The concept of the arts on prescription has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation, and it has been put into practice in a number of different countries over the past few years. General practitioners have been enabled to ‘prescribe’ a variety of non-clinical activities that serve as therapy. Both in the Scandinavian countries and in the United Kingdom, activities such as art classes have been encouraged as a treatment for loneliness in senior citizens. This has proven to be a great tool to combat aging and the isolation which often accompanies it.

Since Malta is rapidly becoming an aging population, I feel this kind of initiative would be extremely beneficial here. These community-based programmes would not only help our senior citizens. The social and creative benefits of the arts would also help those who feel socially excluded from society, including the younger generations, those suffering from substance abuse, and for children who have some form of disability.

In fact, I would go a step further and suggest that these kinds of schemes should be available for anyone who wants to be involved. Not only would this improve social well-being, but it would serve as a steppingstone to better social inclusion and integration within Maltese society as a whole.

Malta has experimented with the concept of The Arts on Prescription with some pilot projects. For example, Il-Premju tal-President għall-Kreattività is one of a series of initiatives and schemes aimed at reach out to those who are vulnerable through cultural participation and creative expression. However, these projects have been limited in scope and in time span. As we come out of the pandemic, I feel that we as a country need to embrace this concept wholeheartedly – expanding and supporting these kinds of schemes so that as many people as possible can be involved. In my view, The ‘Arts on Prescription’ is a vital tool to improve our citizens’ well-being and it will serve to strengthen a programme as a social prescription. It should be funded and provided within the public health service, working in partnership with the Arts Council, related NGOs and other entities.

The use of art and culture for health purposes is an exciting development – one which can provide the kind of social and psychological support which will be much needed as we rebuild and come together after the struggles of COVID-19. Without doubt it needs to be high on our agenda, in order to address both the gaps in our society, and the impact of the pandemic.

Julia Zahra is a PN candidate