A new study, published in the International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, examines the benefit of art courses on mental well-being and social inclusion. The results of the service evaluation study, conducted in Open Arts Essex programs in the UK, suggest introductory art courses can benefit individuals with mental health difficulties. The researchers, led by Ceri Wilson, Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, write:
“The results of this six-month follow-up study of participatory arts courses add further weight to the growing evidence that arts participation is an effective means of promoting mental well-being and social inclusion for people experiencing or at risk of mental health problems.”
Art therapy has been shown to provide mental health benefits for a variety of individuals and conditions. The authors discuss previous research showing “involvement in community arts activities may help to resolve people’s need for individual and social identity and that this, in turn, may assist people to find a sense of social and thus personal belonging.”
Open Arts Essex was established in 2008 “with the aim of promoting mental well-being and social inclusion for people experiencing or at risk of mental health problems in South Essex, England.” A core component of the program is a 12-week introductory art course, open to users of mental health services, self-referred individuals, and carers. Initial evaluations of the art courses at Open Arts Essex suggest the experience improves well-being and social inclusion, two domains that are prioritized in England’s mental health policy.
Given the demonstrated short-term benefits of Open Arts Essex, the researchers sought to provide the first long-term evaluation of the art courses. Ten arts courses (visual arts, drama, and percussion) were evaluated. Course participants were invited to answer questionnaires at the beginning and end of the course, as well as follow-up assessments 3- and 6-months after the course ended. The researchers collected data from 106 participants at the beginning of the art courses, although fewer participants completed the end of the course and follow-up questionnaires (e.g., 39 people responded to the 6-month follow-up). The majority of participants were White, female, and middle-aged.
The researchers state, “all respondents reported enjoying their course and over 90% reported increased motivation to do art work and other activities. Over 80% also reported improved confidence, feeling more positive about things and improved relationships as a result of participation.”
For both well-being and social inclusion, participants had significantly higher scores at the end of the art courses compared to the beginning. These gains remained high at the 3-month follow-up. Improvements in well-being and social inclusion were reduced at the 6-month follow-up, but scores at 6-months were still significantly greater than initial scores.
The majority of the participants who responded to the 3- and 6-month follow-ups continued making art. Some participants also reported taking up additional activities (e.g., volunteering) as a result of participating in the art classes. The researchers suggest this is evidence supporting the positive benefits of art for mental well-being and social inclusion.
The authors note the limitation that they were unable to include a control group and therefore cannot be sure the improvements are not due to other factors. In addition, the study may be subject to response bias: The smaller number of participants who responded to the follow-ups may differ from participants who chose not to respond.
The authors address the lack of funding for long-term studies evaluating the efficacy of art programs for mental wellness. They call for more resources to be allocated to more rigorous study designs (e.g., randomized controlled trials) in order to better assess how art programs can improve the lives of individuals experiencing mental health difficulties.
Wilson, C., Secker, J., Kent, L., & Keay, J. (2017). Promoting mental wellbeing and social inclusion through art: Six month follow-up results from Open Arts Essex. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/14623730.2017.1345688 (LINK)