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Delivering arts and health services digitally can extend access for some, but others are excluded. Nesta Lloyd-Jones looks at the positive outcomes and future challenges brought about by the lockdown.

Postcard for Aneurin Bevan University Health Board’s, I’m Thinking of You campaign
Postcard for Aneurin Bevan University Health Board’s, I’m Thinking of You campaign

Artist George Manson

Even for the most resilient people in our societies, the sudden shift in our daily activities and social interactions brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic has been frightening and has put immense strain on our mental health and wellbeing.

For those who are vulnerable, this period of lockdown can have an even more profound effect. In Wales, we knew before the pandemic that one-third of people reported feeling lonely or isolated. The reality of the lockdown means this figure is now likely to be much higher.

Reports suggest that loneliness and social isolation can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While the restrictions we’ve had to put in place are necessary in order to protect lives and the NHS, the issues which had an impact on our health before the virus have not gone away, and in many cases have been exacerbated.

That’s why Wales has continued to lead the way in providing and developing arts and health initiatives. Artists and the NHS have been collaborating to deliver programmes which have helped keep our most vulnerable active and supported their physical and mental health and wellbeing.

A changing approach

This momentum could have easily been lost as restrictions were imposed. But rather than accept and pause the progress we had been making, the way we deliver these services has been changing to comply with social distancing. We are now looking towards a bold new future for how we can increase access to arts and health initiatives in a post-coronavirus world, using digital technology and empowering staff within health and care settings to take forward and embed creativity when supporting people in their care.

For example, Span Arts, a community arts charity based in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, has been delivering a high quality and diverse range of music, theatre, comedy and voice events for over 30 years, alongside a wide range of arts and wellbeing projects, in an area where people otherwise do not have access to the arts. Throughout the pandemic they have moved all programmes online and are developing a series of unique projects to keep people singing.

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board and the Arts Council of Wales have invited people to connect with themselves and others by producing virtual postcards. Until mid-July 2020, the project will support young people, the wider Gwent communities and key workers by commissioning a different artist each day to create a bespoke postcard focussing on different aspects of wellbeing, working with their communities to respond to the crisis. They offer ideas for how people can stay connected, encouraged, and comforted while we are being asked to stay at home.

The project fosters specific interactions, such as teachers connecting with pupils who could be severely affected by the current restrictions.

Where members of the community are unable to use or access these new technologies, artists and healthcare staff have risen to the challenge by offering a range of bedside activities for those self-isolating using more traditional approaches.

Rising to the challenge

It would have been easy to look at Coronavirus as a barrier to providing services. Instead, we have managed to open up these initiatives to a great many more people, increasing access for those who otherwise might not have had the time or opportunity to realise the benefits the arts can make to their health and wellbeing.

This monumental effort has been heart-warming, but hasn’t come without its challenges. The use of technologies such as video conferencing can form part of how the NHS and artists deliver services going forward. Technology can help to increase access to these initiatives, but many of the arts and health services we can now offer are more difficult to access for those who are not digitally enabled, so in any post-Coronavirus world this will have to be coupled with vital face to face interactions.

The arts community as a whole is under threat, as many cinemas, theatres and live music venues feel the heavy financial burden placed on them as a result of lockdown, and it will be equally important they bounce back for the benefit of society as a whole.

Gearing up

NHS organisations are already making preparations for an increase in the number of people in their communities requiring support. The demand for mental health and wellbeing services alone will no doubt be huge.

In preparing for that future it has been integral to keep some services running to minimise the impact now, but also to provide a roadmap for how we can provide services for a larger number of people in the longer term.

NHS Wales is well aware that creativity will help to ensure we are able to tackle the indirect health consequences of Coronavirus now, and in the future.

We need to come through this crisis with as much support in our communities as possible, and the next step is to provide sustainable cultural and creative services in Wales beyond Coronavirus.

Nesta Lloyd-Jones is Assistant Director of the Welsh NHS Confederation which represents all NHS organisations in Wales.

Link to Author(s): 
Nesta Lloyd-Jones