By Shilpa. This report-back style blog may be of interest to Community Arts and Health Practitioners and anyone who has experienced the health and wellbeing benefits of singing, dancing, art, poetry!

‘As he embraced poetry, he embraced a connection with others and himself’

‘I self-medicate through art’

‘Singing has reduced my use of inhaled steroids by 50%’

This week I went along to a Roundtable meeting in the houses of parliament organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Arts, Health and wellbeing. I was invited by my colleague on the Singing for Better Breathing project Lizzi Stephens, who was to be speaking about the Singing for COPD groups she leads in Kent. The APPG is conducting these meetings to collect collect evidence towards its inquiry into how arts interventions can support health and wellbeing in the UK more systematically.

The majority of speakers shared stories of innovation, creativity and tremendous impact on health and wellbeing outcomes. There was some time for discussion about how to drive this agenda forward. The meeting was chaired by Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, who has a background in the arts herself. She skilfully wove the conversation together, drawing our key learnings from each presentation.

Amal Azuddin from the Scottish Mental Health Foundation in Glasgow spoke about how the refugee women she works with are sharing their stories of pre-migration trauma, migration and the ‘mental torture’ of the asylum system in the UK. After initial scepticism (‘art is for children, not us!’), they have woven these stories into beautiful pennants, which have been collected and exhibited in libraries and museums. The exhibition has had a deep impact in bringing to light the experiences of these women – viewers report feeling ashamed that our country treats refugees in this way and want to help change things. She concluded that this is a crucial lifeline for many participants and that better funding streams are needed for this work – a comment echoed by a number of other speakers.

My colleague Lizzi powerfully shared how singing has helped her manage her COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder), which has reduced her lung function by around 50%. Regular singing (she runs six groups a week!) has helped her reduce her dependency on inhaled steroids and helping her control her breath to give her better lung function. Regular group singing has been proven to support lung function in clinically significant tests. Lizzi told the meeting about her choirs and about the Singing for Better Breathing project in Lambeth and Southwark and shared testimonies from her choir members – ‘singing has literally been the light at the end of my tunnel, it gives me something to live for’.

Phillip Davenport from Arthur and Martha spoke about the Homeless Library project in Manchester, where people tell their personal and emotional histories through art and poetry, which they say ‘brings joy and brings insight’ to the homeless people they work with. They recognise that self-expression is one of our deepest human needs – it defines our identity and it allows us to grow and change. One of their participants with a history of childhood abuse said writing poetry has ‘put me back on the ladder of life’.

Sheryl Cotto and Thomson Hall from Action Space in London told stories of using the visual arts to support and empower disabled people with different kinds of needs. Thomson, one of the artists, said he realised that ‘art is my calling in life’. He drew admiration from the room when he told us he has held two exhibitions of his work in Brighton and Glasgow. Sheryl questioned how the artists can earn some money through their art work without losing their care packages.

Eva Okwonga from Music in Mind courageously shared how music has supported her to improve her mental health. How both she and the people she works with experience a sense of growth and ‘I can do this!’ strength through developing their musical skills and performing. She stressed the empowering potential of Mind and Music’s Peer Support approach – if the person working with you has been on a similar journey, it can be easier to connect with and trust that worker.

Some of the key threads I noticed through these stories:

Holistic working – all of the stories we hard acknowledged that people are emotional, spiritual, social and intellectual beings. Not just physical bodies/machines to be repaired.

Story-telling – A number of the projects emphasised the importance of being able to process  emotions and tell your story to the wellbeing of us individually and as a community. Bearing witness to each other’s stories says ‘I am important. You are important. We are worth something’ – which is so important when we live in a neoliberal regime that does not value our full human worth.

Trauma recovery –If you have experienced trauma, the impact lives on at the physiological and emotional level and can be an underlying contributing factor to many health conditions. It’s clear that a number of the projects are supporting people to heal from trauma. This is a key theme for My Heart Sings work (eg working with women in prison and in detention centres).

Community – almost every project worked with groups, not just individuals. And connection with others is central to the work they do. It is clear in the community work that I do that to be heard, accepted and encouraged by a group of peers has great healing potential itself.

Transformational impact – testimony after testimony showed this is working! Lives are being changed. Often in a much more cost effective and lasting way than prescribing drugs or other mainstream health interventions.

Equality and Justice – Most of the projects worked with people who are marginalised in current UK society – disabled people, refugees and asylum seekers, homeless people, young or older people – building resilience, capacity and voice. And being visible and heard, taking up space instead of being passed over. It seemed very clear to me that this work is not just about healthy individuals but about changing how we relate to one another – with a potential for more respectful, equal communities.

Resource scarcity – every project demonstrated creating huge change, often for people who most need it. Yet almost everyone referred to funding shortages and other difficulties such as having to jump through complicated hoops for funders.

Further comments and discussion then took place on the need to make the Arts more of a mainstream health intervention.

Deborah from the National Alliance for Arts, health and wellbeing said that any effort to drive the arts and health agenda forward will be on a scale from ‘tinkering’ to ‘radical’. She suggested that the arts have the potential to help sick people ‘become fully human again’ and argued we should be radical, campaigning for 0.1 % of the health budget to be spent on arts interventions.

A few people from Public Health England spoke. Louisa Newman and Shona Arora, both working in workforce development, spoke of the need to strengthen skills in this area, to help practitioners innovate and evaluate well. Richard Parish spoke of the arts as an important vaccine for facing life. Catherine Swann recognised that beyond the health agenda, these kinds of arts interventions can change communities and tackle social inequality by building social capital. She asked the room ‘how can we be more strategic about our impact – where do we start focussing our energy?

A number of people both around the roundtable and in the audience spoke of the barrier of culture – those with the money just don’t get the importance of this agenda! Perhaps things like singing and art don’t seem serious enough to them? Perhaps they are too much outside their comfort zones? How can we change this?

At this point the meeting felt quite heavy and less hopeful. My colleague Lizzi and I  led a short call and response song, introduced with an invitation to notice our feet, ground ourselves and release the shoulders with a long out-breath. The room sounded wonderful! Even in a House of Lords Committee room, a participative experience can help change the energy and remind us of our strengths.

The meeting ended with positive suggestions for what next. Priorities suggested include

  • Continuing to build the evidence base showing that arts interventions work! This is what the Singing for Better Breathing project that I run groups for in Lambeth is doing – testing to see the impact that singing has on lung function and sense of wellbeing
  • Use this evidence to convince policy makers. But also be more creative – draw on our considerable creative talents to communicate our agenda persuasively. We need to accept that there is an element of educational work to be done so policy makers feel confident to support. This GP training project by Vivien Ellis was mentioned.
  • Map stakeholders and those with influence. And think strategically about who and how to connect with them
  • Baroness Young shared the example of a ‘Reframing Justice’ workshop she had recently attended exploring how to transform the way the criminal justice system is thought about. She proposed that re-framing this debate (using different language, images, metaphors to help combat myths and create different discourse) could help us be more persuasive. How do we show that the people and art discussed has value, is really worth something? One suggestion was to be bold and take it into mainstream big galleries to make more of an impact (on the participants and on the audiences)
  • Set up ways to help practitioners replicate good practice happening across the country
  • It was noted that there is a huge difference in the impact of consuming or participating in the arts. On the way out of the room, I was inspired by a participant’s suggestion of a Arts and Health and wellbeing showcase inside the Houses of Parliament, inviting MPs and policy makers to taste some of the activities the projects offer.

You can see the full notes of the APPG meetings and contact them via their website. The more of us involved, the more powerful we are. Information about the inquiry that all this evidence will be collated for is here.



Me, Eva and Lizzi outside. #ParliamentSelfie