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With 30 years’ experience of arts and mental health delivery, darts is very familiar with the key ingredients of an effective community-based programme for people with mental health issues. Elanor Stannage shares their progress and looks to the future.


© James Mulkeen

The Creative Directions programme has been running for five years now, offering regular, creative activity to over 18s with a spectrum of diagnosed and undiagnosed mild, moderate and severe mental health issues, as well as those feeling socially isolated.
Through the arts, it supports participants to prevent mental health crisis, develop strategies to build and maintain good mental health and wellbeing, and reduce loneliness by increasing social connectedness.

It’s a programme grounded in a proven approach developed by Doncaster Community Arts (darts) over 30 years of arts and mental health delivery. We support people to join at all stages of their challenges with mental health. They negotiate their way through creativity to find the things they enjoy and take control of their creative practice. In doing so, they explore new ways of being with others.

There are some key ingredients:

  • Regularity (50 weeks a year) and unrestricted access – there is no booking, we don’t turn people away, and participants can attend for as long as they feel they need to, when they need to.
  • Person-led, responsive practice – the participation coordinator takes the time to get to know individual participants, their interests and challenges, and finds ways for them to move forward both within and beyond the sessions.
  • Creative practice at its core – experienced, professional artists lead genuinely ambitious activity that builds skill and gently challenges participants.
  • Research – evaluation is key to understanding genuine impact and enables us to build on best practice.
  • Collaborative working and close integration with the health and social care sector – Creative Directions is becoming embedded in health and recovery pathways across the borough.

Creativity in practice

Creative Directions runs at The Point, where participants can pop into the art gallery between sessions or grab a coffee in at the café. At the morning session people bring their own creative projects to work on, where they can ask questions and get support from the participation coordinator, volunteers and - most importantly - each other.

The afternoon sessions comprise facilitated workshops with skilled artists so people can develop a creative practice following their interests, with activities ranging from percussion to stone-carving and drama to singing. Participants also take part in progression sessions to develop specific skills further, such as workshops in collaboration with National Theatre. The creative activity responds to individual needs, often challenging participants to move out of their comfort zones. They say they enjoy this, as it pushes them forward, helping them make positive decisions.

The sessions allow for empowerment, involvement and peer support, and with opportunities for co-design of sessions. One participant commented:

“I used to be a shut in. I was mute, so now to be able to come here and sing in front of people is a complete 180° change from 4 years ago. Coming here has done so much more for me than seeing professionals. It’s because I’m doing something I enjoy. I don’t feel isolated anymore. I actually feel like I can talk to people and not be judged.”

Evaluations demonstrate impressive impact: 88% of participants said they had made new friends; 75% had been coping well with problems; 59% had been relying less on their doctor; and 80% said they had been feeling good about themselves as a result of attending Creative Directions. 

Extending reach

Two years ago, darts and Public Health Doncaster brought together 40 health, social care, arts and culture leaders, managers and frontline staff to ask how opportunities like this can be made available for the whole borough, every day. Led by a new Arts & Health board with leaders from across all sectors, we've since secured over £1m of investment for a series of pilots, including development of the Creative Directions model in three other communities). Opportunities available for residents have tripled and academic partners are involved in a series of research programmes.

Knowing how important this project is to our community, we were sad to have to pause face-to-face sessions during lockdown. Many participants have additional physical health issues and are feeling isolated as they have been shielding, but we have found ways to reach people through ‘darts at Home’. Regular phone calls were important as around half of all participants are without the technology or confidence to access to our online activities. We also secured funding to make in-person deliveries of monthly creative packs with arts materials and books designed by our artists, filled with creative writing and drawing ideas.

In total, in this challenging year that marks darts’ 30th birthday, we have produced more than 93 films, 53 downloadable resources, 33 Zoom sessions, 92 books and CDs, and 1000 Bags of Creativity for vulnerable families. We have recognised, more than ever, how important it is that we are here, reaching out to the people of Doncaster with creativity and connection through the beauty and challenge of the arts. We are carefully planning our return to sessions at The Point and cannot wait to work with people in person again, with renewed belief in the importance of arts in health as a facilitator of connection, taking control and exploring new ways of being in the world.

Dr Elanor Stannage is Arts & Health Project Manager at darts

Doncaster Community Arts (darts) is a community arts organisation that delivers arts engagement for social impact.

Link to Author(s): 
Elanor Stannage