An ambitious initiative unveiled this week by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock may soon enable the country’s doctors to prescribe therapeutic art- or hobby-based treatments for ailments ranging from dementia to psychosis, lung conditions and mental health issues. Writing for the Times, Kat Lay explains that this unconventional strategy, described by the U.K. government as “social prescribing,” could find patients enrolled in dance classes and singing lessons, or perhaps enjoying a personalized music playlist.
“We’ve been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration,” Hancock said in a Tuesday speech at the King’s Fund health care think tank. “Social prescribing can help us combat over-medicalising people.”
According to the Telegraph’s Laura Donnelly, the proposal, which arrives on the heels of a larger preventative health scheme, provides for the creation of a National Academy for Social Prescribing that will ensure general practitioners, or GPs, across the country are equipped to guide patients to an array of hobbies, sports and arts groups.
The medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded: As Lay notes, a collaboration between the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and stroke survivors living in Hull, England, encouraged patients to play instruments, conduct and perform; 90 percent of these participants reported improvements in their physical and mental health. In Lambeth, dance lessons have been shown to improve concentration and communication skills amongst those displaying early signs of psychosis, and in Gloucestershire, hospitals have begun to refer individuals with lung conditions to singing sessions.
A similar campaign launched in Canada earlier this month, Brendan Kelly reports for the Montreal Gazette. Beginning on November 1, every member of the Montreal-based medical association Médecins francophones du Canada (MdFC) gained the option of handing out 50 prescriptions allowing patients and a limited number of friends, family and caregivers to tour Quebec’s Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for free. Normally, admission costs up to $23 Canadian dollars (roughly $18 USD). As MdFC vice president Hélène Boyer tells Kelly, the initiative builds on research suggesting museum visits raise serotonin levels to offer a quick mood-boost.
Compared to the Canadian project, the U.K. one is simultaneously more comprehensive and less fleshed-out. Rather than simply prescribing one museum trip, the British campaign will encompass multiple walks of life, from social activities such as cooking classes, playing bingo and gardening to more culturally focused ventures, including library visits and concerts.
But a key issue the proposal does not fully address is a sustained funding model to support local services, Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, points out to BBC News. Mark Rowland, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, adds that that accessibility is another obstacle. “Our concern is that social prescribing options including music, arts and volunteering aren't being accessed by the poorest in our community,” he says. “If we're going to make the biggest difference to prevention and recovery the government needs to show how it will reach those most at risk."
Social prescribing is intended to complement rather than replace more traditional forms of treatment. As Sally Copley, director of policy for the Alzheimer’s Society, explains, music and the arts must function in conjunction with “access to the right support and medication when needed and, crucially, the government ensuring adequate funding for care is addressed.”
Social prescribing is projected to be employed across the U.K. by 2023, according to the government’s recent outline of its “loneliness strategy.” (Back in January of 2018, the U.K. appointed Tracey Crouch to serve as its first “minister of loneliness” to explore how to combat the “sad reality of modern life” following a revelatory report issued by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness the year prior.)
According to the Stage’s Georgia Snow, pilot programs are already underway in England’s northwest, where there’s a social prescribing scheme specifically for new mothers and babies, and in Wales, where the National Health Service has teamed up with the country’s arts council.
“We should value the arts because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing,” Hancock said in his remarks earlier this week. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”