Doctors in Brussels Are Prescribing Free Museum Visits

To boost mental health, one of Brussels’ largest hospitals is testing the program in a six-month trial

The Brussels City Museum
The Brussels City Museum, one of the institutions participating in the pilot program Photo by Edwin Remsberg / VWPics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After two years of closed doors and online tours, Brussels’ re-opened museums will serve a new purpose: helping those seeking mental health treatment cope with stress, anxiety and depression.

Starting this month, doctors at the Brugmann Hospital, one of Brussels’ largest health centers, are able to prescribe their patients visits to a number of cultural institutions managed by the city.

“The arts help all human beings forget we are mortal beings,” Vincent Lustygier, a psychiatrist at the Brugmann University Hospital, tells Politico’s Ana Fota. “During the pandemic, death became something that was waiting outside your door. We saw to what extent mental illness became prevalent afterwards.”

Those with a prescription for free entrance can tour ancient underground pathways in the Sewer Museum, check out textiles from the 1500s at the Fashion and Lace Museum, or stroll through the galleries at the CENTRALE contemporary art center, among other activities. Five museums managed by the city are participating in the pilot, which will run for six months. After that, the program could expand to include federally-run museums, as well.

“Now’s the time to do this,” Delphine Houba, a Brussels deputy mayor who is spearheading the initiative, tells Politico. “The coronavirus reminded us that culture is essential for mental health.”

The one-page prescription is designed to be simple and discreet. People “won’t have a guide or something special because we don’t want them to be stigmatized or to feel different,” Houba tells the Observer’s Jennifer Rankin.

Brussels isn’t the first city to try an initiative like this, although Houba believes it is the first in Europe. In 2018, Quebec greenlit a similar program in Montreal. The Canadian province was acting on increasingly conclusive research that shows exposure to art and creative stimulation can provide a host of benefits for patients, from mental health to chronic pain management to palliative care.

According to a 2019 World Health Organization report, an analysis of more than 3,000 studies “identified a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health and management and treatment of illness” throughout a person’s lifetime.

Like exercise, an afternoon enjoying art can cause an increase in serotonin levels, Hélène Boyer, the vice president of the Montreal-based medical association Médecins Francophones du Canada, told the Montreal Gazette’s Brendan Kelly in 2018. The art exposure program is particularly promising for those who can’t exercise due to age or disability.

In Brussels’ program, patients will check in with their doctors before and after their outing, Johan Newell, a psychiatrist at Brugmann University Hospital, tells the Observer.

Newell emphasized that museum visits are not meant to be a solution; they are a tool in the healing process to be paired with ongoing care, like individual or group therapy, medications, meditation and other lifestyle adjustments.

“I think almost anyone could benefit from it,” he says.

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