Mental health in the pandemic: Can the arts take centre stage?

Mental health in the pandemic: Can the arts take centre stage?

by Fellow Olivia Ware, Founder and CEO Many Minds


As the days get shorter and it looks like we are heading into a second wave lockdown, there is growing concern about the effect the pandemic is having on our mental health. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) released research in July showing that rates of depression amongst adults have doubled in lockdown and 42% of young people reported it has made their mental health worse. More people are feeling socially isolated, unable to connect with their friends and families, losing their jobs and facing an increasingly uncertain future and we don’t yet know what the longer-term impact of this will be.


As the Co-Founder and Director of Many Minds, a mental health and performance charity based in Bristol, I am interested in how we can start strengthening the case for the arts to take centre stage in supporting people’s wellbeing during the difficult times that lie ahead.


Despite the arts sector looking on the verge of collapse, with the support from some emergency funds, we at Many Minds were fortunate that we didn’t have to shut down when lockdown started in March. In consultation with our members, we moved all our workshops online and started to learn new ways to meet and create together.  With many mental health services falling away overnight, it became clear how important it was to keep going and many of our members described our workshops as a ‘lifeline’.


We met twice a week on Zoom and as well as providing emotional support for each other in the ups and downs we all experienced, we also made two online productions, and for the first time, were joined by audiences from all over the world. The opportunity to be creative together and work towards a common goal when many of us had nowhere else to turn, was invaluable.


In my job, I see every day how important and lifechanging the arts are on people’s lives and the lockdown has served to show just how vital they can be in providing hope, motivation and emotional wellbeing. 90% of our members say that our projects support their wellbeing and make them more connected to others. This has been increasingly more important as there are restrictions on many of the resources that are normally encouraged to keep us well.


There is a growing body of research that supports the case for the arts in mental health. In 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing released a report calling for an ‘informed and open-minded willingness to accept that the arts can make a significant contribution to addressing a number of the pressing issues faced by our health and social care systems.’ The report evidenced 82% of people taking part in participatory arts experiencing improved wellbeing, significant savings to the NHS and drops in admissions for patients taking part in arts programmes.


There has been a significant investment by the NHS in a social prescriber’s network that refers people into social activities including creative and arts-based projects. This feels like a positive step although the concern is that if arts programmes themselves do not get any investment, they may be overloaded with referrals and not have the capacity to meet the growing need.


The arts have for so long been seen as a nice-to-have or an add on. They are often the first thing to get cut from government budgets and are often sacrificed by schools and educational institutions when purses are tight.  And now, in the pandemic, the industry is suffering one of its greatest ever challenges.


But in times of crisis, there is always opportunity. We are slowly seeing more acknowledgement and support for mental health and the arts. The Baring Foundation recently launched a £900,000 fund in what they have described as a ‘long-term commitment to funding arts and mental health’ as a way of responding to the pressures of Covid-19.


At Many Minds, we have experienced more interest in our work than ever before, from decision makers, funders, mental health services and arts practitioners across the world. So now we have the chance to harness some of this awareness and come together to position and raise the profile of the arts as a fundamental need for people’s wellbeing.


As American Actress, Stella Adler aptly said: “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”. As we collectively continue to face more challenges ahead and uncertainty of another lockdown, it is time to come together to take action.


So, what can we as arts organisations do?


  1. Tell our stories about the powerful impact on the arts on mental health. Promote them in the media, online, in our newsletters and to our networks. Whilst mental health is on the agenda and more people struggling, there are also more people listening. This may encourage funders to follow the lead of Baring Foundation in creating more funds to support this work.


  1. Create stronger networks with each other. There are so many arts organisations doing positive things around the country and rarely do we get the chance to share our practices and experiences. Coming together now can help to create a louder and more powerful voice that will put arts and mental health at the front of funders minds.


  1. Build more evidence. Although there is some strong research out there, we need to continue to measure and demonstrate the impact we can have to make a stronger case.


  1. Offer arts-based solutions. As the potential of mental health difficulties rising, there are more opportunities to present arts-based projects as a way to support people’s wellbeing during the pandemic. Check funding available from local authorities (there is more of a focus on mental health than ever before) and start making cross sector collaborations with individuals and organisations.


To keep up with Olivia and the work Many Minds are getting up to you can follow them on social media @Many_Minds