Arts for Health and Wellbeing in the time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on life in the UK with many sectors of industry having been affected by the economic downturn caused by the virus and the necessary steps such as the lockdown and physical distancing taken to mitigate it.

One sector in which the social and economic consequences of the pandemic have been felt particularly keenly is the arts industry. According to latest Arts Index, across the UK public investment in the arts per capita has fallen dramatically over the last decade. Beginning with a significant drop in funding following the 2008 finical crisis, the arts sector has since weathered a 35% drop in public funding on a national level.

According to the UK government’s own data, the country’s creative industries are wildly profitable, contributing an estimated £13 million to the economy every hour and growing five times faster than the national economy itself. This revenue, according to the Arts Index, is reliant in large part on box office sale, catering and venue hire , all of which require in-person participation from consumers. For the last few months, this has not been possible leading to the UK government recently pledging a relief package for the arts sector to the tune of £1.57bn, with £57m allocated to Wales, following weeks of sustained pressure from the industry.

The pandemic has represented a separate challenge to the NHS; one of the most severe it has faced since the service was founded in 1948. The issues around the direct treatment of patients with COVID-19 has been well-documented but the reprioritisation of resources to allow for this has had far reaching consequences across a wide range of services offered by the NHS.

This is as true for Cardiff and Vale University Health Board as it is for any NHS organisation. Before COVID-19, great progress was being made in recognising the benefits of the creative arts to people’s physical health, mental health and overall sense of wellbeing in both community and hospital settings. For instance, Visiting a gallery or museum every few months reduces your risk of developing dementia by up to 44% – and the benefit lasts for up to 10 years after you stop. According to the Arts Council Wales in their Arts and Health: Mapping Report.

Sadly, the pandemic has acted as a barrier to some of the work which the team was previously undertaking with its flagship space, the Hearth Gallery, closed until further notice, wards closing their doors to the artists who would once fill their patients’ days with joy, colour and song, and community centres also closed.

With that in mind and the national context around the current state of the arts sector, it would have been easy for the Arts for Health and Wellbeing team to have become an afterthought for both the Health Board which it serves and the organisations which provide its funding such as the Arts Council of Wales and the Cardiff & Vale Health Charity, which has been almost exclusively focussing on providing refuge areas and hot meals for exhausted staff members since the start of the pandemic.

Thankfully, this has not been the case and the Arts Council of Wales have recently announced a continued commitment to provide funding for the one of the two existing Arts in Health Coordinators in the UHB’s Arts for Health and Wellbeing team with the Health Board matching this contribution for the second post. The team is extremely grateful for the ongoing support for these posts, which are currently held by Alex Staples and Melanie Wotton.

Despite the pressures related to COVID-19, Cardiff and Vale UHB’s affiliate charity, Cardiff & Vale Health Charity has also recently pledged ongoing funding towards several arts projects in order that patients may still receive the benefits of the creative arts for the next 12 months, albeit in different ways.

But how can the arts contribute to our social and, in the case of some patients, literal recovery from COVID-19? Can small teams working on a local level, such as that within Cardiff and Vale UHB, compensate for the void that has appeared as a result of the closure of theatres and galleries? Can these teams even operate effectively while ensuring that measures such as physical distancing are adhered to?

A definitive answer to these questions seems unlikely in the short term but the outlook at Cardiff and Vale UHB is positive. The arts have been shown to be particularly beneficial in areas such as neurological disorders, patient engagement, child development, reducing health-related stigma, reducing the impact of trauma, dementia / cognitive decline; some of these can be linked with COVID

In order to respond to some of the challenges presented by COVID-19, the Health Board has relied upon the arts team’s resources and insight into how the creative arts can contribute.

The arts have been entrenched in the UHB’s plans to respond to the pandemic, even as part of the temporary hospital at the Principality Stadium, Ysbyty Calon y Ddraig. Perhaps most crucially, the arts have been used to bolster the wellbeing and resilience of healthcare staff and patients alike.

Using art to thank healthcare staff for their efforts and sacrifice is something that many members of the public have relied upon in lieu of being able to do anything in person other than a weekly round of applause. It feels as though you’re unable to walk down a street without at least one house proudly displaying its resident’s thanks in the front window. This communal expression of gratitude is something that the arts team wanted to replicate and has been a central driving force for the work that has been undertaken recently.

A second objective has been to ensure that patients continue to benefit from the arts wherever possible and, crucially, that their wellbeing is not negatively affected from an abrupt cessation of the various programmes into which they had been enrolled which could potentially lead to a reduction in movement or an increased sense of isolation while in hospital.

To document the work that has been undertaken since the start of the year, the Arts for Health and Wellbeing team have published a bi-annual report, which you can read here. It follows a successful year for the team in 2019, which was documented in last year’s annual report and year in review video.

Simone Joslyn, Head of Arts at Cardiff and Vale UHB said, “We are extremely grateful to all of our contributors and funders for allowing us to continue working on this vital project during the pandemic. I would like to say a special thank you to the Arts Council of Wales, who I know are working tirelessly to conserve the arts sector in Wales with an urgent response fund. That we are able to continue to offer the arts to our patients and staff, even when other venues are closing their doors, is testimony to the increasing recognition of the benefit of the arts when treating people holistically and not just as a set of symptoms.

“In fact, I believe that our ability to continue working throughout COVID-19 is even more important in the absence of larger arts venues. However, despite what we have achieved, we remain a very small team and do not have the resources to completely make up for the absence of the arts in people’s lives outside of the healthcare setting. I hope that as they begin to reopen, people realise again the benefit they offer to society’s sense of wellbeing and that an even greater emphasis is placed on their importance by government matched with increased funding as we look to build back better.”

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