As part of our Spotlight Series as part of Creativity and Wellbeing week, we spoke to Vas James, coordinator of the MARCH Mental Health Network.
How did you first become interested in the role creativity can play in our wellbeing?
Vas: I’ve always been fascinated by the positive psychophysiological responses to those magic moments of social, cultural and community engagement: the ‘chills’ from singing together with a choir; the collective euphoria of an amazing gig; the feelings of awe and wonder seeing a beautiful artwork; being enchanted and moved to tears by a play or book; the warm glow after a day of volunteering; or the ability to lose oneself in the act of painting or gardening.
What excited me about the MARCH Mental Health Network was that it champions the organisations and places in our communities that provide these extraordinary, life-enhancing experiences, and how they work to build stronger, more resilient people and communities.
What is the focus of your network?
Vas: I’m the coordinator of the MARCH Mental Health Network. The MARCH Network focuses on social, cultural and community assets – which includes arts organisations like theatres and galleries, heritage sites, libraries, green spaces, community centres, social clubs, community associations and volunteer groups – and the role they play in enhancing public mental health and wellbeing, preventing mental illness, and supporting those living with mental health conditions. I am in the lucky position of connecting with a network of amazing researchers, community organisations, policy advocates and mental health charities who are helping to transform this area of research. You can see our priorities outlined here.
Why is this research area important?
Vas: Vibrant local communities contribute to human flourishing in so many ways. Yet over the last thirty years, we’ve seen the breakdown of local communities, with reduced social participation and increased social isolation. Research shows that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.
While many approaches to mental health focus on a ‘deficit’ approach, identifying and fixing ‘problems’, this network takes an ‘asset-based approach’, which gives prominence to the resources that exist within communities and how they can be mobilised to improve mental health.
The pandemic has brought the role of community into even sharper focus with the enormous contribution of volunteers, community groups and local mental health charities at the forefront of support.
Over the last two years, MARCH has been bringing interdisciplinary teams together to identify how and why community assets impact public mental health, what the the gaps for are for future research, to understand the complex relationship between community engagement, mental health and health inequalities, and the barriers and enablers to participation.
What are the key findings emerging from your research?
Vas: Despite the pandemic, we’ve accomplished a lot!
We have been working to map the barriers and motivators to social, cultural and community engagement and have run focus groups and interviews with network members including individuals with lived experience of mental illness, GPs involved in social prescribing, and community organisations. It was wonderful to connect in person with a range of community groups from around the country - to hear first hand about the incredible work they are doing to support people, in so many innovative and creative ways, and learn more about the challenges they face. The paper on this work, written by Drs Louise Baxter and Daisy Fancourt, makes recommendations on the way forward to ensure that individuals with lived experience of mental illness have equal opportunities to engage in community activities.
We were thrilled to have our co-produced Research Agenda published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open - we worked with over 300 members of the network from a wide range of backgrounds to identify the most pressing research gaps in the field. We identified four core themes: the mode of engagement, process of engagement, impact of engagement and infrastructure required to facilitate engagement with community activities.
We have worked with the MARCH Disciplinary Expert Group (covering over 40 academic disciplines) to identify over 600 “mechanisms of action” that link leisure engagement to mental and physical health. The mechanisms have been synthesised into a new framework using the lens of complexity science, which was published in The Lancet Psychiatry We hope this framework will support the design of more theory- driven, cross-disciplinary studies that explicitly consider the mechanisms underlying the effects of leisure engagement on mental and physical health.
You can read more about additional research, our Plus Fund projects, policy documents and public engagement work of the network here .
How do you use creativity to support your own wellbeing?
Vas: I have a great love of theatre, live music, and the wonderful art galleries and museums we have in London. With the pandemic I have been surprised at how some of the magic of these community assets can be captured and shared widely on the small screen.
During the pandemic I’ve been trying to commit at least 10 minutes each day to drawing portraits of people - it’s a challenge, and I’m slowly improving. Pounding away at the piano is also a fantastic stress reliever!
How can people keep up to date with your research?
Vas: The MARCH Network Twitter handle is @NetworkMARCH, and our website is www.marchnetwork.org. On the ‘opportunities’ web page, you can find details of the range of special interest research groups, and we have an online discussion forum called Basecamp - if you are interested in getting more involved, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find me on Twitter at @VasLondon
Creativity and Wellbeing week is a yearly festival run by London Arts in Health and the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance . Their aim is to encourage everyone to try out arts and health activities via showcasing some of the fantastic projects in the UK that are available. Find out more about the week here.