Addiction isn’t easy to treat, but could a whole person approach that uses the arts help? Emma Drew makes the case. 

Photo of drawings on a wall
Drawings in the Brighton Health and Wellbeing Centre waiting room

Art has always had the capacity to take into account the whole person, while top-down medical treatment may address symptoms and body parts rather than the personal and social experience of being ill. Health professionals are finding new ways to successfully engage the arts to create a whole-person environment in which recovery is possible, and in which the longer-term resilience and the cultural and social engagement necessary for a fully realised human life can be achieved.

Along with other organisations, the Royal Society of Arts’ Whole Person Recovery programme has been driving change in addiction policy. As a result of my involvement in the programme, I wrote The Whole Person Recovery Handbook (Sheldon Press, 2015) to explain the role and evidence for cultural and social capital in effective recovery, and the need for equal partnerships between professionals and participants. 

Art has always had the capacity to take into account the whole person, while top-down medical treatment may address symptoms and body parts

At the HERA project at Brighton Health and Wellbeing Centre, we are trialling a multi-disciplinary arts-on-referral service, working with literature, visual arts, dance, music and film-making. Our audiences include carers, people experiencing anxiety and depression, people in recovery from addiction, older people and people with mobility and respiratory concerns.

In this environment, routine practices take on a different complexion. Marketing our service needs to be done with care, expertise and due respect for the confidentiality and potential vulnerability of our participants. We report on the various ways that people benefit as participants in the arts, and also on health outcomes in partnership with GPs at the centre.

In an early pilot, over 80% of older people taking part in our choir testified to improved breathing and physical wellbeing and to making new friends. They also put on a fine performance. Meanwhile, we are also learning about how to meld together the different cultures of health and arts services in the interests of patients and the local community, and are developing professional supervision, peer learning and training appropriate to deliver high-quality arts activity to people with health issues and their carers (whose own health is often under pressure).

The case for ‘person-centred’ approaches has been irrefutably made. Projects across the country show it in action. One example is Manchester Metropolitan University’s online evidence resource and the Department of Health evaluation guidance based on work pioneered by brave, innovative, precariously funded people.

The main purposes of evaluation are to check that what we are doing is good enough, and that we can capture the evidence necessary to report to our paymasters. The purposes of art can be very different, and may include joy, fun, learning, interaction, communication, astonishment, discovery, change and challenge. All of these have a role to play in public health and emotional resilience.

Arts engagement can promote recovery by replacing compulsive, addictive and self-harming behaviours with enjoyment, human connection, cognitive exercise, emotional development, expressiveness and creativity. As author Michael Clune puts it: “There is a glimpse of timelessness, that little chip of immortality that lies at the centre of disease and recovery.”

The practical, financial and cultural barriers are formidable, but cost savings to the public purse could be enormous. Risks and challenges include the necessity to create effective peer learning, challenge stigma on all sides, work across traditional policy boundaries and prevent the exclusion of those with relevant expertise (often sole traders or small organisations) by the muscular efforts of larger non-specialist organisations with paid development officers and metropolitan contacts. There is much work yet to be done.

Emma Drew is Director of The Old Reading Room.
Tw: @oldreadingroom

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Photo of Emma Drew