Researching arts and health interventions
As part of our Researcher Spotlight series in Creativity and Wellbeing week, I spoke to Katey Warran (University College London) to tell me a bit more about her research.
How did you first become interested in the role creativity can play in our wellbeing?
Katey: I previously worked for CW+ (the charity at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital) where I led on the delivery of their performing arts programme, working to improve patient experience and achieve clinical outcomes through arts engagement. It was in this role that I became interested in how the arts may be able to play a major role in supporting our health and wellbeing: I saw the benefits for a range of different patient populations, working across paediatrics, outpatients, palliative care, surgery, oncology, and geriatrics. I was particularly struck by the idea of ‘matching’ an arts intervention to a health problem to design really targeted interventions to meet health needs.
What is the focus of your research?
Katey: My research interests span two key areas. Firstly, I am interested in designing and researching arts in health interventions. I’m currently working on a study at UCL as part of the MARCH Network exploring the ‘active ingredients’ of arts and culture, seeking to identify and unpack what is ‘in’ these activities that specifically links them to health outcomes. Further, we’re supporting a project led by WHO/Europe’s unit on behavioural and cultural insights for health, exploring effective and sustainable strategies for integrating arts interventions into the healthcare sector.
Secondly, I use qualitative approaches to understand the broadly ‘social’ aspects of the arts, such as examining how arts engagement can support social cohesion and build social relationships, with a particular interest in singing groups and arts festivals. Within this remit, I will be exploring if and how online dance classes support the social and mental wellbeing of young people in an upcoming project.
Why is this research area important?
Katey: Working to optimise arts interventions in their design and delivery to achieve specific health outcomes for particular populations can support healthcare at multiple levels. From a policy and organisational perspective, it can support with embedding effective interventions within the healthcare system – such as via social prescribing programmes – to make the arts more accessible, provide targeted support, and provide cost-effective solutions for the National Health Service. And at an individual level, effective interventions can support with the management and treatment of a range of mental and physical illnesses, as well as provide meaningful subjective experiences that may provide opportunities for reflexivity and identity-building, supporting with processing life experiences and unlocking creativity. Qualitative approaches are important in this landscape to understand the complexity of arts experiences, understanding how and why the arts may support multidimensional wellbeing.
What are the key findings emerging from your research?
Katey: I worked on a 2-year project exploring the benefits of singing for those affected by cancer, where we investigated the psychosocial and psychobiological impact of group singing. The results explicate the range of ways in which music can affect us.
Our quantitative results found that:
12 weeks of choir singing significantly decreased anxiety and significantly increased well-being for carers of patients with cancer.
Adults bereaved in the last 5 years had more stable symptoms of depression and levels of well-being from singing in the choir for 12 weeks.
70 minutes of singing decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol for cancer patients, carers, and bereaved carers, indicating that participants were becoming physiologically more relaxed through singing.
Our qualitative results found that:
Men living with prostate cancer who sang in the choir for more than 12 weeks experienced group singing as a positive, social experience that enhanced wellbeing and could provide support in the face of the existential uncertainty brought about by having cancer.
The choir helped with building resilience for patients with cancer, staff, carers and those bereaved who had participated for a minimum of 6 weeks of group singing.
Looking across these findings, we can see that there are potentially complex mechanisms at play, whereby psychological, biological, and social mechanisms may interact to prompt health and wellbeing outcomes. This has been theorised by my colleagues in the context of leisure activities and is explored in another ECRN blog here.
How do you use creativity to support your own wellbeing?
Katey: One of the key findings in research on arts and wellbeing is that learning something new may be a key mechanism contributing to health outcomes. Over the last year during the pandemic, I have engaged in learning dance online for the first time, taking a range of different classes led byPirita Tuisku andDance Base.
How can people keep up to date with your research? (Please provide links to any social media/Research Gate/mailing lists etc.)
Katey: I can be found on Twitter at @Katey_W, and you can stay up to date with research from the MARCH Network by joining our mailing list. I also co-direct the Arts Play Health Community with my colleague Laura Wright, and would encourage anyone interested in these fields to attend one of our regular social cohesion chats. You can read about previous chats in the Arts Health ECRN blog.
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.