Jenny Secker on introductory arts courses for people with mental health problems.

painting is of an outlined mother figure leaning over to hold her child's hand

‘Open Arts’ is an arts and mental health project hosted by the South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust. The project works with local partners to provide a range of arts opportunities for people experiencing, or at risk of, mental health problems. The starting point is participation in a 12-week course, which aims to improve mental well-being and social inclusion through providing relaxing, welcoming art groups, with sessions in variety of media.

Since 2008, 347 people have participated in 29 courses. Feedback has been positive, with participants identifying both social and mental health benefits, as well as artistic development. While this qualitative evidence is valuable, and was especially helpful in the early days in shaping the introductory courses, more formal evaluation is important in securing ongoing funding, especially from the health sector where ‘hard’, measureable outcomes are seen as more credible than anecdotal evidence. All introductory course participants are therefore asked to complete a brief questionnaire at the beginning and end of their course. The questionnaire includes two published outcome measures: the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS) and a measure of social inclusion developed during a national study of arts and mental health (report available from the author).

The results have shown statistically significant improvements on both measures over the first two years of operation. However, although participants’ positive feedback suggests that these improvements are due to participation in the introductory course rather than to other factors in their lives, it has not been possible to prove this with the level of certainty needed to convince more sceptical funders, especially at a time of economic austerity. The development of a waiting list for the introductory courses means that we can now address this by asking people waiting for a course to fill in the questionnaires at the same time as people taking a course. If the measures show that mental well-being and social inclusion improve more amongst people on a course than amongst those waiting for one, we can be more certain that it really is arts participation that is helping. Hopefully, those sceptical funders will also be convinced.

Jenny Secker is Professor of Mental Health at Anglia Ruskin University and the South Essex Partnership Trust.