Qualitative Research in Arts and Mental Health: Context, meaning and evidence

Written for McPin

This book, edited by Theo Stickley, associate professor of mental health at the university of Nottingham and expert on mental health, arts and health, counselling or nurse education, brings together three rather nebulous and difficult to define concepts – qualitative, art, and mental health – with the aim of proving, at least until the ‘common sense’ argument prevails, that the arts are good for people and should be valued and embedded in practice.

As well as definitions, arts for mental health faces a systemic difficulty. When it comes to healthcare, data is key. Funders and policy makers want evidence, and the form this tends to take is figures, laboratory testing, randomised control trials and money. But not only are creative and arts based interventions difficult to measure in this way, the individual patients and services users do not see the impact in terms of statistics but the effect on their own quality of life.

This book presents eleven key examples of arts-based projects that have sought to promote mental health. They include visual arts, craft making, writing, film-making and performance, and are given the term ‘participatory arts’.

Theo Stickley offers up diary extracts from his early days in the field, when as a mental health nurse in a ‘bleak…limited’ environment where people were ‘stripped of…independence and dignity’ when he set up a creative arts programme that went on to become Nottingham’s Art In Mind.

Asking the question ‘Is art therapy?’ Langley Brown explores the difference between art as therapy and non-clinical activity, and the role of the patient within this. The evolving programme in Liverpool is explored by Julie Hanna and Polly Moseley, with collaborative commissioning being identified as a key area for focus, and four schools are looked at by Edward Sellman and Anna Cunliffe, in a balanced report addresses dangers as well as benefits. Mick McKeown et al. and Shaun & Marian Naidoo both look at the role of film, one as an art form, and one as a research tool.

The final chapter by Helen Spandler and colleagues was undertaken as part of a national study to assess the impact of participatory arts provision for people with mental health needs, 20 and explores how arts can contribute towards a ‘recovery’ approach. Fostering hope, creating a sense of meaning and purpose, rebuilding identities and improving resilience are the hardest to standardise and measure, ‘yet may be the most profound and significant outcomes of participation in such projects’. Helen Brooks and David Pilgrim also consider the distinction between ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ change.

Effective art practice should not involve patients as subjects to do something to, but active creators along with artist facilitators, and so many of the chapters look at the perspective of the latter and their own experience. The research examples use various qualitative methods to capture the contexts and meanings of arts practice, with the aim of reflecting the voice of the participant through narratives discourse, ethnography or participatory action research. Researchers are by nature curious, and this curiosity should extend to exploring new methods of inquiry that are flexible and reflexive, truly reflecting the experience of the subject – but seeing that subject as a human being.

This, if anything, feels like the noble goal of Theo Stickley’s Qualitative Research in Arts and Mental Health: Context, meaning and evidence. To view art as a human experience in which the experience of humans matters. Identity, hope and resilience are all important attributes of a person’s life, whether they are deemed to have health problems or not, and arts based approaches offer a ‘unique and life transforming contribution to mental healthcare.’ this collection of research and documentation is one valuable step towards its recognition as such.

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