© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2020

Arts on prescription: tackling mental health with creativity and art

Antoinette Spicer
Kim Morton
Kim Morton, director of Ōtautahi Creative Spaces. Kim Morton (Suplied)

Health professionals may start prescribing painting and sculpture to tackle mental health issues.

Kim Morton, director of Ōtautahi Creative Spaces, a creative wellbeing organisation in Christchurch, has received a Churchill Fellowship to travel to the United Kingdom and Denmark in 2020 to research the "Arts on Prescription" model.

Similar to “green prescriptions” where health professionals prescribe patients dietary advice and exercise, the "Arts on Prescription" model will see health and whānau workers connect people who are unwell with arts programmes to build their health and wellbeing.

Churchill Fellowships allow citizens from all walks of life to design their own research projects, travel the world and further their knowledge in a chosen field, before returning to make their knowledge available to New Zealand society. 

“Arts on Prescription is a really great opportunity for collaboration by organisations from the health and arts sectors such as Pegasus Health, Canterbury District Health Board, the Ministry of Health, Christchurch City Council and Creative New Zealand,” Kim said.

“I look forward to sharing what I learn with these organisations so that together we can create something here that fits our needs.”

Kim said the widespread mental distress following the earthquakes and the recent terrorist attack on the Muslim community make Christchurch an ideal place to pilot the programme.

“The mental health system is struggling to cope with demand, and this is a proven way of improving mental health. Increasing access to creativity through a prescription could make a real difference in New Zealand, she said.

In 2015, Ōtautahi Creative Spaces was set up in response to the high levels of mental illness, distress and trauma after the earthquakes.

Findings from research conducted for Ōtautahi Creative Spaces in 2018 show the "profound" impact of its arts programmes on people's mental health and wellbeing. Among the benefits that artists listed were developing new and positive mindsets, learning new skills, feeling pride in their achievements, and feeling more connected to family, friends and their communities.

In 2018 Creative New Zealand made a submission to the Government’s Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction advocating "Arts Prescriptions" as a way to improve mental health.

The inquiry was established by the Government in response to widespread concerns about services in the mental health sector and the broader community.

Referencing international research and evidence which indicates schemes like this can improve mental health and well-being, Creative New Zealand proposed introducing an arts on prescription scheme funded from the national health budget.

It referenced an "Arts on Prescription" scheme in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire in the UK which showed there was a 37 percent reduction in GP appointments and a 27 percent reduction in hospital admissions there. Overall the scheme resulted in a $442 per patient reduction in National Health Service costs.

A New South Wales arts scheme for the elderly that complements conventional healthcare was also noted. The scheme found there were improvements in mental and physical health, and reduced social isolation for its participants.