Jenni Regan is CEO of London Arts and Health, and curates the annual Creativity & Wellbeing Week festival. We spoke to her about the Week, and why she believes creativity is important for health and wellbeing – for us as individuals and society at large.
Can you tell us about Creativity & Wellbeing Week – who it’s for, its purpose, who is involved?
Creativity and Wellbeing Week (17-23 May 2021) is in its 11th year this year. It started as a small festival for the arts and health sector and has grown into a UK-wide celebration of the power of creativity on wellbeing. It showcases many brilliant organisations and artists, and provides a chance for the public to try out creative activity. The festival is run by London Arts and Health, and the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance came on board in 2019 to take the festival UK-wide.
Can you tell us a little about London Arts and Health?
The charity started out as a small, member organisation. We’re still dedicated to our members, who are mainly arts and health practitioners but are now an Arts Council “National Portfolio Organisation” and the leading sector support charity in London. We advocate for arts and health, work with policy makers, and bridge the gap between the arts and health worlds. We have worked on increasing the resources we offer over the past year, producing a number of digital tools to support our members. The coronavirus pandemic was incredibly hard for many of them.
“Art is for everyone and is a fantastic preventative measure against ill health.”
Why do you think Creativity & Wellbeing Week is important?
Primarily it’s a chance to put arts and health in the spotlight and highlight some of the fantastic work going on across the UK. It’s a great leveller and puts grassroots organisations on the same stage as the larger, better funded cultural institutions. The benefits of creativity on wellbeing are still not as well-known as factors such as exercise and eating well, and we want everyone to be able to experience what it can do to support a healthier and longer life.
We know that those who face barriers to accessing arts and culture are often the same people who would benefit greatly. You don’t have to be a ‘creative’ person to benefit from taking part, and you don’t have to have an illness or disability. Art is for everyone and is a fantastic preventative measure against ill health.
How is creativity linked to wellbeing?
Over recent years, there has been a growing understanding of the impact that creative or cultural activity can have on health and wellbeing. Accessing the arts and culture – and more generally working with our own creativity using our imaginations – can improve our health if we have diagnosed mental or physical health problems. But it is also good for our health and wellbeing more generally, and for the health of our communities and society.
The arts can reduce stress and increase social engagement as well as providing opportunities for self-expression. Many describe it as a mindful experience or an escape from everyday life. It’s not just about the activity: people tell us that taking part combats loneliness and isolation. Taking part in creative activities can also help us make more sense of our emotions and the world around us and can encourage us to build our own narrative.
What does creativity mean to you personally? Has it had a particular impact on you and your wellbeing?
I am a bit of a convert! I always thought that art was not ‘for me’. After all, as a straight-A student I scraped by with an E in my GCSE art. But of course, creativity is not about being ‘good’ or painting masterpieces. My creative passion is writing, I write fiction and as well as publishing a couple of books I now also use writing for my own wellbeing and try to write something daily.
“We know that arts subjects are not just a ‘nice’ addition to the curriculum, they encourage self-expression and creativity and can build confidence as well as a sense of individual identity. Studying arts subjects also helps to develop critical thinking and the ability to interpret the world around us.”
Are you involved in any personal creative projects at the moment that you’re excited about?
I am writing the second draft of my latest book, which has clearly been influenced by my job! I usually write thrillers but this has turned into a heart-warming story where nobody dies. It also involves an abandoned asylum and the discovery of an outsider art collection in the basement.
I’ve also been running Writing for Wellbeing sessions for the past few months. I’ve been volunteering to support asylum seekers in London over the past year and these sessions include some asylum seekers and people from my local area. The way we all view subjects such as travel and friendship are so different and we are all learning from each other. This has become my regular way of having a bit of escape as I am a full participant.
How do you feel the pandemic has affected people’s attitudes towards art and creativity?
It’s really interesting how people have quite naturally turned to creativity during the pandemic, particularly during the full lockdown, when people were asked not to leave their homes. All the usual coping strategies such as exercise and nature were suddenly not available to people, and so we saw them taking part in online drawing classes, lockdown choirs and watching culture from the sofa.
For many, lockdown has made it easier to take part in creativity. Those who find it hard to leave the house have been able to take part from the comfort of their homes. Of course the pandemic has also highlighted the digital divide. Cultural organisations have responded by offering physical creativity packs for some sections of society.
Do you feel that art and creativity are given enough space in our culture? Is it championed enough?
Definitely not. This is really highlighted by the recent government proposal to halve the funding for arts subjects in further education. We have also seen a continuing decline in secondary school arts provision.
We know that arts subjects are not just a ‘nice’ addition to the curriculum, they encourage self-expression and creativity and can build confidence as well as a sense of individual identity. Studying arts subjects also helps to develop critical thinking and the ability to interpret the world around us.
In 2019 the arts and culture industry grew by £390m and was worth £10.8bn a year to the UK economy. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on this, and it’s even more important that we invest in the next generation. We also have a huge issue of diversity in the arts and health sector. If children from a privileged background are the only ones receiving arts education, we are unlikely ever to see a level cultural playing field.
“I think Create has done so much to make arts and health more mainstream on a national level, which has benefited smaller organisations.”
What could be done to improve this?
Investment in the arts! But also there is a role for the culture sector to shout about what we do and to reach out to the next generation, creating opportunities and making the arts – and in particular arts in health – a viable career choice. As a charity we are working on ways of doing this. There is some hope with the growth in popularity of “social prescribing”, where activity is prescribed instead of or alongside conventional medicine.
Social prescribing has been championed by both the Department of Health and NHS England in its Long-Term Plan. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, spoke about culture and creativity in relation to social prescribing in November 2018 at the King’s Fund. He said: “The arts can help keep us well, aid our recovery and support longer lives better lived.”
However, many social prescribers have been focusing traditionally on basic needs such as housing and finances. This is changing as there is a growing realisation that taking part in creative activity increases health and wellbeing to the point where addressing basic needs is easier to manage for the patient. As a charity we have been championing cultural social prescribing and are beginning to see social prescribers seeking to add arts and cultural activities to their offering.
What do you think about the work Create does?
I have been lucky enough to take part in a Create writing workshop, delivered to people with dementia, which was brilliant. It is really inspiring to see a charity working with so many different art forms and with such a wide variety of users. I think Create has done so much to make arts and health more mainstream on a national level, which has benefited smaller organisations.
My favourite project, and one I think many should emulate, is creative:connection where disabled and non-disabled young people are bought together to work with professional artists. I have worked on reducing stigma in mental health and for the refugee community through previous roles and current trustee roles, and the key is always to bring people together to share stories and experiences.
I think the idea of nurturing new artistic talent, which is a major initiative for Create, is also key to championing arts and culture going forward. Again, this is something more organisations should be aiming to achieve.