Arts, humanities and mental health

Woman speaking at support group meeting for mental health.

To mark World Mental Health Day, this blog explores the important role of arts and humanities research in tackling mental health issues.

Any one of us who has lived with or near to mental health issues knows how challenging they can be, to individuals and on relationships. Yet one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, and the pandemic has exacerbated this.

Everyone from high performing chief executives and athletes to children to the old and the isolated can find themselves lost and suffering. Tragically, for some the problems become too great. More than five thousand people took their own lives in 2020, three quarters of them men.

Investment in mental health research

Animation to promote mental health literacy in young people.

AHRC-supported ‘What’s Up with Everyone?’ campaign
© 2021 University of Nottingham, Loughborough University, London School of Economics and Politics, Aardman Animations Ltd, Mental Health Foundation. All rights reserved.

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has long been committed to research in this area. We have invested over £14 million into mental health between 2010 to 2021.

Projects include:

  • arts and creative interventions for wellbeing
  • histories and philosophies of mental health
  • work on stigma and ‘otherness’.

Mental health was a notable theme in around one-fifth of doctoral projects, including archive-based work, social elements of mental illness, and wellbeing practices.

One hugely successful recent project, led by Paul Crawford in collaboration with Aardman, What’s up with Everyone?, used animation to promote mental health literacy in young people. The central research question was around how co-created, animated stories and companion app increase young people’s mental health literacy? But the results are remarkable, over 18 million viewed the videos.

Culture, health and wellbeing

The What’s Up with Everyone? project spoke to young people in the intensely difficult period of the pandemic, other projects have looked at a regional level. This has been a key theme of the work of the Centre for Cultural Value, co-funded by:

  • AHRC
  • Arts Council England
  • Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

In addition, see Josie Billington’s project COVID-19 CARE: Culture and the Arts, from Restriction to Enhancement: Protecting Mental Health in the Liverpool City Region. This assesses the impact on mental health of restricted access to arts and culture in a specific city region, and tracks, enables and enhances the value of innovation in arts provision in mitigating associated harms.

Our Boundless Creativity project showed the impact of the pandemic on arts. Other parts of our portfolio have illustrated the gap left in our social lives and wellbeing by the loss of a thriving cultural and creative economy, and the value of what we did manage to preserve.

Video credit: AHRC
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript are available on YouTube.

The impact of COVID-19

But the scars of COVID-19 are deep. Karen Windle has looked at the nature and extent of mental health support necessary following the pandemic. To understand the experience of subverting or adhering to public health messages, and assess how public health messages were developed to support the bereaved in managing the funeral process.

See bereavement rituals during the COVID-19 pandemic: implications for mental health support, funerary practices and public health messaging.

Anandi Ramamurthy used storytelling as a methodology to develop our understanding of the impact of discrimination that Black and minority ethnic nurses have experienced during the COVID-19 crises. Exacerbating the mental health challenges of professionals who have done so much to support us all through the recent past.

See nursing narratives: racism and the pandemic.

Working together to find solutions

As we look forwards, we are working with the Medical Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council to fund projects that develop or apply innovative methodologies to further the field of adolescent mental health research. Arts and humanities is strongly represented in the methodologies of projects which have been awarded and there are more opportunities available now.

Working with colleagues across the research sector, AHRC is seeking to help address mental health challenges across the whole spectrum of our society and to increase understanding and minimise the stigma and prejudice which can even now still attach to mental illness.

And it’s important to say that whilst many of us find balance through arts and culture, from popular music to art, performance to poetry, real sports and e-sports, what we do in arts and humanities is neither not just about consolation or description.

We know that these are challenges which have been with us across time, from Gilgamesh’s grief, to the tragic flaws of the Greek heroes, to harrowing stories of persecution or the voyeurism of Bedlam, the effects of shellshock or the impact of contemporary deprivation or desolation. As we become more honest, and more accepting, there is a chance for us to see that to flourish as a human does not exclude failing and faltering.

AHRC research is and always will be about finding ways to give permission to be human, which means sometimes to be at the limits of ourselves. These projects show rigorous methodologies to mitigate and manage, but at heart that is also a strategy, and a profoundly human one, to say that no-one should ever feel they have to struggle alone.

If you or anyone you know are struggling with mental health issues  please visit: NHS: Get help from a mental health charity.

Top image: Credit: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

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