Monday, 23 May 2016

The Art of Health in Wales

Artwork by Susie Freeman 

Earlier this month I attended a symposium at Celf O Gwmpas (setting for our team’s recent comedy workshop) which explored policy and practice in arts and health. 
The aim of the day was “to move the Arts Health & Wellbeing sector forward and explore opportunities for advocacy, collaboration and networking”. One of the highlights of the event for me was a showcase describing innovative practice already happening across Wales. 

In our team we have previously worked very successfully on projects incorporating art when collaborating with people in contact with mental health services, most notably the DIY Futures Project, resulting in the book it’s the inside that matters. So, Jane and I were very keen to find out about a potential national network which encouraged further collaborative work between the art and health sectors.

In brief, here's how the day panned out...

Our facilitators for the day (photo below) were Angie Rogers, Development Coordinator at engage Cymru and Prue Thimbleby, Arts in Health Coordinator at Abertawe Bro Morgannwg Health Board

Engage originally carried out some pilot projects in North Wales a couple of years ago, and with funding from the Arts Council of Wales “Sharing Together” pot were able to set up the All Wales Arts Health & Wellbeing Network. This network has “now attracted over 30 members from across Wales representing arts organisations, health boards, academics and artists”. Prue said that whilst recognising we have regional diversity it was important to ensure that the Network’s voice is heard at a high level.

Tim Joss, Founder and Chief Executive of Aesop (Arts Enterprise with a Social Purpose) and Co-Founder of the Arts Impact Fund

Social and cultural entrepreneur Tim set the scene for the day, sketching the bigger picture of where health and the arts meet with an image of Barbara Hepworth’s hospital art as a backdrop. Using case studies from England and Africa he explored the widespread benefits of using various art practices to disseminate health messages and also change patients’ lives for the better.

The Raw Sounds project in South London provides recording studio sessions for young people accessing mental health services, and was praised for “reaching the person rather than the illness.” And financially savings could be measured at about £500 per night – the cost of a mental health bed in the area. Nevertheless, despite the evidence provided by such obvious successes, Tim had struggled for 40 years trying to bring art into the public health service, often due to the attitudes of some working in the health sector.

There followed a series of short presentations showcasing the examples of good practice from across Wales.

Dementia & Imagination: Dr Teri Howson & Dr Catrin Hedd, Bangor University

This research project looked at arts groups set up for people with dementia and their carers in communities, in care homes and in hospitals in different parts of the UK. The partnership working element was found to be key to their success (partners included major contemporary art galleries such as The Baltic on Tyne & Wear). And innovation was also vital – two cartoon characters, Doris and Ivor, were spotted on Bangor Pier telling passers-by what the arts can do for them.

“People always say they can’t do art, but they very quickly get absorbed and forget they said that.” The hope now is that health commissioners will recognise the value of art to people with dementia and continue to provide the groups through mainstream services.

Caban Sgriblio: Arts Alive Wales – Justine Wheatley

Llandrindod Wells High School provided the focus for this project, which aimed to improve the resilience, confidence and wellbeing of those children taking part through creative writing and film.

Emma Beynon ran the sessions where children played with writing and then spoke to camera with original poetry and free writing. “I love seeing pupils synthesizing the world in their own terms…. It is the most exciting thing I do.”

Live Music Now: A Choir in Every Care Home – Douglas Noble

Thirty organisations from divergent perspectives including adult social care were brought together for this project’s working group. The aim was to explore how music and singing can feature regularly in care homes across the country. Research has already shown singing to be beneficial for psychological and social wellbeing, and part of what makes us feel connected to our community.

In England an online toolkit is now available to share the learning and best practice already captured. And at the other end of the generational scale children now participate in Sing Up – a drive to bring singing into all primary schools.

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board: Creative Well – Andrea Davies

Andrea presented the BCUHB Arts in Health & Wellbeing Programme, which focuses on five key areas: 1. Working with older people and chronic conditions, 2. Improving mental health and wellbeing for all ages, 3. Transforming healthcare environments, 4. Integrating the arts into education, training, professional development and staff wellbeing, and 5. Capitalising on creative therapists' and artists' abilities to act as catalysts for innovation. She described a vast range of arts activities which had been pursued. The work started with putting artists in hospitals. The challenge was to convey the benefits across such a huge health board area (all of North Wales).

We found out about the staff choir, the painted hoardings around Glan Clwyd Hospital during its redevelopment, the artist residency at Llangollen Health Centre, and the creation of an arts studio on a mental health hospital ward. “I was known as the person who can get teenagers out of bed!” Andrea said. There is now a pathway through to community arts projects once a patient has been discharged.

Andrea’s top tip: “It is really important to plan with staff. Get the right people together to shape and tailor a project”.

Your Medicine, Your Health – Alison Warner, Cwm Taf University Health Board & Nancy Evans

Bring together Alison – who works in Medicines Management, and Nancy – a freelance artist and here we had the perfect combination to deliver a public health message to a wider audience. Nancy worked with school children to design colourful posters to educate people about correct medicine use and disposal. Additional benefits included the increased sense of achievement and pride of the children involved, particularly as the artwork is due to be exhibited this June at the Pierhead Gallery in Cardiff.

As a legacy for the project a teaching pack is now being developed so that others can deliver the exercise which has already been picked up in many more schools across South Wales.

Jane Cooke from our team catching up with Fiona Edwards, Property Manager, Arts in Health, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg Health Board. After lunch we welcomed the next keynote speaker.

Professor John Wyn Owen, Chair Health Protection Committee, Welsh Government & Council Member of Health Action Partnership International

John’s career achievements across the public, private and charity sectors both in the UK and internationally could fill an entire separate blog post. In 1985 he was the first Director of the NHS in Wales, and has championed the value of meaningfully connecting with the arts in health care provision throughout.

Some of John’s proposals to encourage a cultural shift where people matter more than structures, and where art is at the heart of healthcare planning, included:

  • Pushing to include the humanities in the medical curriculum.
  • A programme for health leaders and executives along the lines of American models.
  • Engaging with key figures in the new Welsh Government and Public Health Wales.
  • Building on the statutory obligations of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.
  • Working more closely with the Welsh universities.

Sally Lewis, Portfolio Manager (Education & Participation) Arts Council of Wales

Sally updated the Network members about a recent inquiry into arts and health as part of the All Party Parliamentary Group at the House of Lords. The purpose of the inquiry is to:

  • To inform a vision to support practitioners, to stimulate progress and to influence decision makers.
  • To raise awareness of the arts in health and wellbeing with MPs and the health profession.
  • Supporting academics in the field.
The final report will be launched in 2017. Sally said that it is important, meanwhile, to establish the value of the arts-related work in health by sharing the growing evidence base from Wales and further afield. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act will be a major driver in the future, which led us nicely into the final presentation for the day.

Rhodri Thomas, Cynnal Cymru Sustain Wales – Introduction to the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

Rhodri started by saying that “art is part of the fabric of everyday life.” In the Stone Age people lived their life in balance with nature. “We want to keep what we have but do it in a more mindful way.” For more information on the Act his recommended reading is the Essentials guide.

In brief the Act is about improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of Wales. The challenges of poverty, the global economy, an ageing population, health inequalities, climate change, pressures on natural resources and a rising demand for quality public services, mean that things will have to be done very differently in future. But collaboration is key.

44 public bodies across Wales now have to pursue the 7 wellbeing goals in the Act which could potentially change Wales. One of these is: “A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language,” whilst another is “A healthier Wales.” Rhodri acknowledged that it is a massive challenge.

We rounded off the day with workshops looking at ideas to sustain and grow the arts and health sector in Wales. Perhaps the most refreshing part of the whole experience was the creative approach brought to the table by representatives from so many different sectors, the arts – practitioners and administrators, academics and the voluntary sector. Jane and I look forward to watching the next steps as the Network grows and develops.

To find out more, or to join the All Wales Arts Health & Wellbeing Network, contact Angela Rogers by emailing

Use the comments box below to tell us more about your experiences as an artist, art organisation, health board employee or someone in contact with health services, who has experience of a collaborative approach in arts and health.

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