For centuries, art has been used as an expression tool of the human soul – the emotions, the ups and downs, the disappointments, the joys and the sorrows of everyday life. The arts tell the story of human existence by exploring the mental and physical states of being. However, the arts not only reflect the soul of the artists but also touch the souls of those engaging with it. The arts initiate a critical self-reflection of an individual’s life, the society in which they live and the associated norms. This engagement with the arts makes both the creators and consumers of artwork happier and more satisfied with their lives, thereby supporting them to maintain their mental health.
Moreover, the arts can be used to recreate bonds destroyed within a society. Following the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis, Rwanda leveraged the arts to begin the process of healing. Various arts exhibitions allowed individuals to provide their testimonies and deal with their traumatic past, while eliciting empathy to drive social change. The arts were further used among the youth in Rwanda to support psychosocial education and critical thinking. By supporting the healing process, the arts contribute to the individuals’ mental stability. This high level of engagement of the arts with our mental state makes us understand the implications of the arts for mental health.
There is growing evidence that the arts can alleviate the pain and suffering of those dealing with chronic or terminal illnesses as a complement to classic health services. Arts can reduce stress, depression and promote relaxation in people who are hospitalized or home-bound. For instance, art therapy has been used with cancer patients to engage them in fun activities while they are going through harrowing treatments. In fact, there have been studies that show changes in physiological factors such as reduction in heart and respiratory rate after listening to music. Art therapy can also give such patients a sense of control, self-confidence and hope, thereby contributing to their mental wellbeing.
Given that the arts are an important tool of self-expression, patients can use various art forms to understand their illness. Visual arts can help patients or survivors of trauma express their emotional and mental states when words are not enough. This insight can help physicians work better with their patients to achieve better health outcomes. In the same vein, writing forms such as poetry and journaling help individuals find their voice and express ideas that were never expressed. This engagement with the arts is associated with lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of life satisfaction.
Given the highly engaging nature of the arts, they can be used to raise awareness about public health challenges by provoking conversations around such issues. There are several examples of artists coming together to raise awareness about mental health and challenge the stigma surrounding it. We have the Rural Art Roadshow in Australia, a traveling art show that exhibits artworks made by people with mental illnesses. In Rwanda, we have examples of artists such as Lisa Ndjeru and Hope Azeda that also use the arts to raise awareness about mental health.
However, all of this is only possible if we adopt a multisectoral approach. Collaborations across stakeholders in government, civil society and the private sector allows for the sharing of knowledge, expertise, and resources while reducing the duplication of efforts. If stakeholders share a common vision, they can leverage their comparative advantage to reduce suffering with efficiency and quality. An example of a much-needed collaboration in the health domain is the one between the creative industries and public health. The transition towards understanding health as more than just the absence of illness has contributed to the consideration of art therapy in healing the mind.
With these benefits in mind, there are some programs that bring together artists and mental health patients. An example is the collaboration between Beautiful Distress and the Fifth Season Foundation to organize an arts exhibition that presented the work of artists in the residency program in two psychiatric hospitals in the US and in the Netherlands. The impact of these exhibitions included encouraging patients and their families to seek support, reducing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and introducing new ideas and solutions to healthcare systems. According to one of the artists, Christiaan Bastiaans, “Artist-in-residence projects broaden the knowledge about subject matter and groups we don't know about yet. Inspiring collaborations, I think, is the most important aspect of it.”
However, while various research studies over the past few decades have proven the contributions of the arts to improving health outcomes, their uptake into everyday health practices has been slow. This is so, even if the WHO’s report on arts in health showed though the analysis of 900 articles that engagement with the arts can contribute to better physical and mental health. As a global health community seeking to alleviate suffering, we need to adopt arts interventions into the medical environment to drive rapid improvements in healthcare.
The Hamwe Festival from its inception advocates for the need of the collaboration between the creative industries and public health. The University of Global Health Equity hosts the annual Hamwe Festival to leverage these positive contributions to the public health field, celebrate the creative industries and raise awareness about different public health challenges. This year, the festival will be organized around the theme of Social Justice and Mental Health in partnership with Wellcome Trust.
Between November 11-15, we will host conversations on the decolonization of public health and the role of the arts in mental healthcare as well as in reducing the associated stigma. The festival will bring together more than 60 artists, mental health experts and public health professionals from 6 continents and more than 20 countries. We hope to reach a large global audience to increase awareness about mental health and reinforce the importance of arts in improving mental health outcomes. Engage with us in these important discussions and enjoy the performances by registering here for this free, virtual festival.
By Injonge Karangwa, Kedest Mathewos, Brianna Ngarambe, Agnes Binagwaho, University of Global Health Equity