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Researcher Spotlight - Henry Aughterson

Updated: May 20, 2021

Social prescribing and the arts

As part of our Researcher Spotlight series in Creativity and Wellbeing week, I spoke to Henry Aughterson (University College London) to tell me a bit more about his research.

How did you first become interested in the role creativity can play in our wellbeing?

Henry: I can’t remember the first moment that sparked my interest, but personally I can always remember drawing/painting and the ‘flow state’ that this creates to be especially therapeutic. In a professional sense, throughout medical school I gradually became more disillusioned with the medical model as the primary means of providing support, and more interested in how community groups and activities support people’s mental health and well-being – many of which deploy creative outlets.

What is the focus of your research?

My research explores the evidence base of social prescribing to support people’s mental health and well-being. Social prescribing involves the referral of patients to sources of support within the community such as community gardening, arts activities, singing groups, peer support and walking groups. There are many routes into these sorts of groups, but I am most focused on primary care referrals, often involving a GP and link worker. One of my main studies at the moment is an ethnography, which involves spending time every week with a football group, reading group, singing group and community gardening group, all of which have links to mental health or social prescribing.

Why is this research area important?

20% of GP appointments are largely social in origin involving issues such as loneliness, mild to moderate mental health problems, lack of meaning/purpose, or financial difficulties. We have 1.5 million chronically lonely people in England and 17% of adults are on anti-depressants . Clearly, alongside adequate medical support and mental health services, we need to explore options within the community, including creative activities to support these groups. In order for these groups and activities to thrive, they need long-term sustainable funding. Often this comes from government funding, or healthcare budgets. Anecdotally, it might seem obvious that these groups have a benefit for people, but within the area of mental health and health more broadly, it is of course necessary for things to have a high quality evidence base. This is mostly a good thing, although I think we do need more flexibility in terms of what sort of evidence is considered acceptable by funding bodies. It’s important for research in this area to explore what effect certain activities have on people’s mental health and well-being, and also via which mechanisms they have their effects.

What are the key findings emerging from your research?

I’ve done some research looking into the barriers and enablers facing GPs in engaging with social prescribing for individuals with mental health problems. This was a qualitative interview study with GPs from across the UK. Some of the enablers we found included: GPs were motivated by the need to de-medicalise certain patient issues; the fun and rewarding aspects of engaging in social prescribing; and positive informal evidence and feedback from patients on how they were getting on with their community activity. Some barriers included: a lack of GP training in social prescribing and low level of knowledge on its evidence base; as well as concerns over the sustainability of their local community sector.

We also did a big theory study now published in Lancet Psychiatry, showing that the benefits of leisure activities can be split into biological, social, psychological and behavioural mechanisms, and highlighted some of the key theories.

How do you use creativity to support your own wellbeing?

Henry: I draw and paint a lot, especially watercolour. I am an avid twitcher (the difference between this and a ‘birder’ is highly important) – which I think is mildly creative. I like to combine these by doing bird watercolours; I’m trying to get through as many British birds as possible until I get bored. I also love playing chess, reading fiction/non-fiction/poetry, and going to the theatre.

How can people keep up to date with your research?

Henry: You can follow me on Twitter or find my latest publications through Research Gate .

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.

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