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Gareth Malone has been widely credited for a boost in the number of community choirs (someone told me new choirs were forming at a rate of 3 per week in the UK). And I certainly think his TV shows are doing a huge amount to raise awareness of the impact of singing on health. But individual advocates – however eloquent and committed – can only achieve so much. And I think there is more to the recent interest in the impact of music on health and wellbeing than Gareth alone.
For years many individuals and organisations across the country have worked to deliver music projects and engage health workers and researchers. And much too has been done to convince and convert policy-makers and opinion-formers. And I think it is now possible to see some of this work bear fruit.
As Gareth’s new TV series is airing on BBC2, there is some symmetry in the release this week of two new pieces of research into music’s impact on the brain. Monday saw the release of research into the effect singing songs from musicals could have on the memories of people with moderate to severe dementia. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2502434/How-The-Sound-Of-Music-help-people-suffering-Alzheimers.html While on Tuesday, further research was released which showed that children’s brains grew differently if they had experienced music training from an early age. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/12/music-lessons-early-childhood-brain-performance
While both these researchpapers looked at fairly small groups, they reinforce the fact that engagement with music – and I mean active engagement – has distinct health benefits.
This is only news in as much as health practitioners – and in fact the wider public become interested in it. The research into child musicians’ brain growth is very similar (to my non-neuro-scientists eye) as resarch that was carried out nearly 20 years ago http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8524453/. The interesting thing is the much more widespread coverage and much more enthusiastic reception that these stories seem to get these days. And that is not all down to any one individual.
Damian Hebron – November 2013
Conscious that I am coming to this six months late, but I’ve just caught the amazingly inspirational performance poem of student nurse Molly Case http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOCda6OiYpg
She delivered it at this year’s Royal College of Nursing Congress at a time when healthcare professionals are on the receiving end of so much negative media attention (which has still hardly eased off). It is a moving, eloquent and truly heartfelt celebration of what care means and what carers give. The massive and overwhelming majority of people who work for the NHS are motivated by compassion and her poem is a passionate distillation of that compassion.
The news that 24,000 more people died in their own homes last year than was the case in 2008 (http://www.lahf.org.uk/end-life-care-improvements) may seem like a fairly irrelevant piece of information for artists and practitioners working in arts and health. Other than those whose work is primarily focused on palliative care, much of the work we describe as arts and health does not directly confront the actual fact of death after all.
However, the shift away from care, treatment and, indeed, death in hospital is a sign of a significant change in healthcare provision in the UK and one which arts in health practitioners would be wrong to ignore. While there are many potential dates that might be given for the start of the arts in health movement (the Ancient Greeks, Florence Nightingale, etc) – one possible date is the establishment of the NHS – some 65 years ago. Shortly after this, Music in Hospitals and Paintings in Hospitals were both founded and the work to utilise the power of the arts to improve the experience of people in hospital began. To look at the work which spun out of hospital arts practice in the 1980s and 90s (see Arts for Health in Manchester) is to see the evolution of arts in health.
Health and care provision is changing fast – as are the needs of the population and our work must change and grow to acknowledge and accommodate this. As the NHS changes (and how it is changing) we need to constantly try to think about how the arts continue to find a place which is relevant and effective in care provision – in hospital and in the community – in life as well as in death.
At the weekend I went to see Frayed – at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. It is a really fantastic exploration of the links between creating textiles and mental health with some astonishing creations. Some of the pieces date back to the 19th Century and they sit alongside more contemporary work by artists like Tracy Emin, as well as work by healthcare workers. The central piece is two embroidered letters by Lorina Bulwer who, in the early 20th Century was imprisoned in the Female Lunatic Ward at Great Yarmouth’s workhouse. Highly recommended
The Guardian has compiled a handy chart showing all the ways people in this country have died since the turn of the new millennium. Very cheery. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/interactive/2013/oct/24/how-people-died-21st-century
What is striking is the success there has been in reducing the number of deaths as a result of certain health conditions – the number of people dying as a result of a heart attack has halved over the period, for example. And at the same time, some conditions are now even more fatal – cancer, for instance.
As Richard Herring is currently pointing out in his typically caustic yet charming way – We are all going to die http://www.richardherring.com/wagtd (if you haven’t seen it – try to)
And we all have to die of something. Even when statisticians talk about preventable deaths – the person whose death was prevented then goes on to die of something else. (yes, I’m pretty sure that’s true).
But there does still seem to me to be a fundamental sadness in the fact that so man thoussands of people are dying each year of what are described in the study as “mental and behavioural disorders”. Even allowing for the fact that the way figures were calculated was changed to incorporate deaths from vascular dementia in this number, a significant number of people are dying – because of their mental health. This study http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/177/3/212.long identified that people with schizophrenia were five times more likely to die an “avoidable” death than the general population. This report http://www.bris.ac.uk/cipold/finalreportexecsum.pdf shows that people with learning disabilities die, on average, 13-20 years earlier than those without.
While the arts have a role to play in health: providing therapeutic interventions, improving healthcare environments, enhancing medical training, I think there is more the arts can contribute.
By effectively working with and for people who are stigmatised by society, ignored and ill-treated by our media, and easily overlooked by an over-stretched health service, then perhaps the arts can find a real avenue to effect change in health.
What the arts do offer is an authentic voice and means of expression for everyone. The arts are not exclusive and, at their best, are democratising and empowering. See this for example – http://misfitstheatre.com/
Sometimes, I think the small (yes London-centric) elite that dominate the arts establishment could do well to think about the inspiring, empowering, loud, funny, painful roar that the arts could be if everyone had access to them. And how much better we all might be if that were the case.
So lots of papers reporting this research today that listening to pop music can be as powerful a source of pain relief as drugs. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/10396157/In-pain-Listen-to-music-says-pharmacy.html
So now I know why a bit of Prefab Sprout or Grizzly Bear makes that long, cycle home in the rain a bit more bearable. Reading the article though – the crucial bit is that it’s your own taste in pop music.
I recently took my mum (in her 80s) to hospital for a rather nasty set of injections into her eye. As we went into the appointment, I couldn’t help feeling that the 1990s dance club mix the nurses were playing in the clinical area was unlikely to appeal to the waiting room full of pensioners with (age-related) macular degeneration.
As the nurse practitioner stood over my mum with a great big syringe there was some grim irony to “I’ve got the power” by Snap http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BRv9wGf5pk blasting out on the stereo.
I’m not sure that mum’s pain was much relieved by their pop preferences.