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The art of being mentally healthy

A study to quantify the relationship between recreational arts engagement and mental well-being in the general population

August 24, 201624 August 2016

Social and economic benefits of the arts and culture

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This article notes that, “with an emphasis on self-expression, creativity, enjoyment and social inclusion, the arts are receiving increasing attention from health professionals, researchers, clinicians, policy makers and the general community as a means of improving population health and mental well-being.” Based on a survey of 702 adults in Western Australia, the article shows that people who had high arts engagement (i.e., at least 100 hours per year) reported better mental health than people who participated less frequently or not at all, even after adjusting for other potential factors in mental health.

The survey found that 83% of Western Australian adults participated in the arts in at least one of 14 ways, including arts attendance (six questions), arts creation or participation (five questions) arts classes, arts work or volunteering, and arts-related membership (one question each). Women, younger respondents, and those with high education levels were more likely to engage in the arts. Respondents were asked how many hours they typically spent in these activities, and the totals were summed over the course of a year. On average, respondents spent 101 hours on the arts during the year.

More specifically, 78% had attended at least one of the six arts activities (average of 16 hours total over the course of a year), 48% had created art or participated in art making (average of 63 hours total during the year), 11% had taken part in arts-related learning (average of five hours in the year), 11% had worked or volunteered in the arts (average of nine hours during the year), and 10% had been involved as “a member of an arts society, club or organisation” (average of seven hours in the year).

Four groups of respondents were identified, including those with no engagement (0 hours during the year; 17% of respondents), low engagement (less than 23 hours during the year; 33% of respondents), medium engagement (23 to 99.9 hours during the year; 24% of respondents), high engagement (100 or more hours during the year; 26% of respondents).

Compared with other groups, respondents with high engagement in the arts had higher measurements on 13 out of 14 indicators of mental health, with particularly high scores “regarding optimism, interest in other people, thinking clearly, feeling loved, being interested in new things and feeling cheerful”. (There was not a significant difference in mental health scores between those with no, low, or medium engagement levels.)

Given the survey findings, the article indicates that “100 or more hours/year (i.e., two or more hours/week) of arts engagement may have the potential to enhance mental well-being in the general population”. The authors note that this finding mirrors some recommendations for volunteering and physical activity (i.e., minimum of two hours per week, or about 100 hours per year).

The study has some limitations: it was limited to Western Australian residents with landline telephones, and it made an observational connection, not a finding of causality. The authors suggest that future research could investigate potential “enablers and barriers to the arts-mental health relationship” as well as any differences between artforms and between modes of arts engagement (i.e., attendance, art making, arts learning, arts work or volunteering, and arts membership).

The authors conclude that “the arts may have a unique contribution to make to population health” as part of “holistic solutions that provide members of the general population with knowledge, choice and the capacity to attain higher levels of wellness and self-care”.

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