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Arts and culture in health and wellbeing and in the criminal justice system

A summary of evidence

February 27, 201927 February 2019

Arts and health

Arts Council England

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Based on a literature review of over 175 articles and reports published since 2010 (mainly academic literature), this report provides an examination of the evidence base for the effects of arts and culture on health and wellbeing and the criminal justice system. The report does not claim to be a “systematic” review, given the vast amount of research and evaluation material published on these topics, but “focuses instead on identifying the key themes and trends in evidence-building.”

In health and wellbeing research, the report identifies an ongoing tension between clinical assessment methods and more qualitative and practice-based methods in the field. The report notes that this “hierarchy of evidence… places qualitative and practice-based research below experimental approaches in assessing value, and holds up the randomized controlled trial (RCT) as the ‘gold standard’, i.e., the most robust, rigorous and reliable evidence of ‘what works’ in these public policy areas.” As the authors note, studying “what works” does not always help researchers understand “how and why it works”, which is something that qualitative and practice-based methods can help illuminate. However, the prevalence of the “hierarchy of evidence” can lead to greater challenges for researchers in “making the case” for arts and culture interventions in health settings.

Many of the findings on the criminal justice system cover mental health issues related to identity, self-confidence, and the ability to cope with challenges. Arts and culture interventions have been shown to help offenders “seek to develop a new, more positive identity” and restore a sense of “agency in the world.” The best interventions were identified as “personalized, responsive to participants’ individual needs, and participative”, thereby promoting self-efficacy.

Another key theme of the report is an exploration of whether and how the arts can “make a contribution to reducing (re)offending”. The report notes that this is a complex question, involving many factors beyond the scope of arts and culture (such as employment, education, socioeconomic status, etc.) While there is some evidence to suggest arts and culture interventions can help in this area, the report notes that the research is in its infancy and needs to be built upon.

To that end, the report makes the recommendation of working “towards a rounded evidence base” combining quantitative and qualitative evaluation, as well as cultural and health care outcomes. The authors note that stories are important: “In raising the level of understanding and acceptance of the value of cultural interventions in the health and criminal justice sectors, there is also value in creating the space for powerful narratives to sit alongside and complement academic research”.

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