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Portrait of woman painting another woman holding a lute

Doctors in the UK Begin Prescribing Art as Part of their Treatments


Music, painting, dance classes, and visits to museums and the philharmonic: all are part of England’s health program of the future.

The Ministry of Health of the United Kingdom is about to launch an ambitious health campaign, to treat diseases including psychosis, depression, schizophrenia and lung ailments, among many others through art programs.

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, revealed during a speech that, “we’ve been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when we should be doing more prevention and perspiration.” Hancock referred to the strategy as “a social prescription to help us combat people’s over-medication.”

The innovative program is to be administered by the National Academy for Social Prescribing, which encourages UK doctors to prescribe for patients the adoption of hobbies, the practice of sports, and visits to museums and cultural centers. The approach is not intended to promote any arts or sports in and of themselves, but to complement medical treatments through patient participation in cultural and sports activities that directly and positively influence health.

A pilot program carried out with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra showed that stroke survivors reported a 90% improvement in their physical and mental health after learning to play an instrument, to conduct an orchestra, or even to perform live in a concert, to name but one example.

Despite the promising findings, some critics of the program are concerned that an artistic prescription for therapeutic purposes won’t reach all communities, especially the poorest. And perhaps precisely because of this, campaigns of this kind need to begin to offer coverage and benefits among those members of society who are least-protected.

“We should value the arts because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing,” Hancock has said. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.” Those promoting the social prescription project hope it will be adopted throughout the UK by 2023. The ministry of health is to work hand in hand with arts organizations to develop options which can effectively improve patient health, though always through individualized schemes, in which any artistic therapy is directly supervised and prescribed by an attending physician.

The interesting thing about such a shift (at least in developed economies) is the change from a scheme of over-medication to an understanding of people as spiritual beings, and who need to be nurtured in symbolic areas and not merely in the physiological. The social prescription proposed for the UK leaves us with the hope that the arts may be recognized not only for their aesthetic qualities, but also for their contribution to people’s health and welfare. Such was the case in pre-capitalist societies, where theater, music, and dance were all integrated parts of any community. It may also allow, little by little, a change in the paradigm of art and access to art which are currently expressions of the economic elite, democratizing them may just favor public health.


Image: Artist Painting a Portrait of a Musician, Marguerite Gérard (1803) – Public Domain

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