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The Arts Apothecary by Jill Rivers: book excerpt

Jill Rivers, a writer and arts advocate, has just self-published The Arts Apothecary – a vital prescription for health, happiness and wellbeing which provides a guide to how engagement with the arts can improve our mental and physical health. Read Rivers’ motivation for writing the book here and an edited extract of Chapter One follows below.



Arts and culture feed us emotionally in our lives, but my message to you is that they offer far more than that: if you try to imagine society without the humanising influence of the arts, you strip out most of what is pleasurable in life, as well as much that is educationally and socially essential – and aesthetically challenging. The psychological lift that the arts give us is the entry ticket to the expanding list of benefits that engaging in arts and culture offers you, your country and the globe. What is more, arts and culture carry the power to enrich and heal – both the world we live in, and that of the future. The benefits of the arts and connection to culture have been underrated. They have the potential to be the key to your future happiness, a major vehicle for increasing health and wellbeing and in effecting social change.

This book advocates the rediscovery of their value and their place in the healing of our troubled world. It offers some of the mounting evidence and makes suggestions on how you can implement the benefits in your life by engaging in the art forms you best enjoy – and trying some that are new to you. Plus encourage others to do the same and to turn around attitudes that are damaging and untrue.

Diversity is the key!

For who has fully grasped the impact of arts and culture on our social wellbeing and cohesion, our physical and mental health, our education system, our national status and our economy?

It’s not an extremity to say that arts and culture are lifeblood to us – both as individuals and members of the community. Whether enjoying a visit to a museum, gallery, theatre or cinema, singing in a choir, listening to extraordinary musicians, reading poetry or relishing a street performance, these experiences are the magic potions that can make your life worthwhile. And they can heal you. Unlike many medical treatments, they are an elixir that is pure pleasure to imbibe.

The good news is that arts and culture are at last acknowledged in our contemporary world as critical to the development of medical treatment.

Sharing cultural experiences brings communities together, creating connections in uniquely personal and highly engaging ways. This sharing is the thread that creates the space for intellectual engagement and enlightenment across the socio-economic mix. It provides inspiration, understanding, solace and entertainment and is context for the richest of social interactions. Have you considered its potential as a potion that offers joy, hope and possibility to people of all ages and status, young, old, impoverished, disadvantaged, recovering from illness, crime or substance abuse, depressed, lonely or distraught, across the globe?

The good news is that arts and culture are at last acknowledged in our contemporary world as critical to the development of medical treatment – and therefore to your own health and wellbeing – particularly if your heart hurts for the wrong physical reasons.

At the forefront of this recently evidenced new thinking is the fact that medical scientists believe it is time to take healing out of the health arena and focus on wellbeing, rather than disease management. Doctors and healers are discovering that art, music, dance and literature, poetry and theatre have profound effects on our health and wellbeing. Combined with traditional medicine, they are powerful tools.

Wellbeing has become a crucial goal for all of us in a world that has become dominated by power and wealth. As the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the influential newspaper Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, writes in her book Thrive of her own health crisis and subsequent realisation that – although successful in traditional terms – she was not leading a successful life:

Every conversation I had seemed to come round to the same dilemma we are all facing – the stress of over busyness, overworking, over connecting on social media and under connecting with ourselves and with one another. The space, the gaps, the pauses, the silence – those things that allow us to regenerate and recharge – had all but disappeared in my own life and in the lives of so many I knew. 

It seemed to me that the people who were genuinely thriving in their lives were the ones who had made room for wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving. 

All these commodities are to be found within the vast arena of arts and culture. The general value of the arts to society has long been assumed by a percentage of the population, but not by all. Nor have the long-range effects on the future world been fully grasped.

What has changed is that measurements of the physical and psychological effects of engaging in the arts are now occurring in growing numbers in hospitals, healthcare centres and academic institutions round the globe. Numerous projects dedicated to this research are producing evidence confirming what has long been believed, but not accepted by 20th century scientists: that culture and creativity are vital to wellbeing.

This research has registered dramatic changes in patients’ psychoses after engaging in arts and culture that have been calculated through measurements of heart rates against biological benchmarks of the national average and further testing with immunology. The results show that the experience of engaging in music, for instance, sends communicating messages throughout the participant’s whole body that make positive shifts in their condition within an hour.

The plan is that arts and artists will become – and have already been recognised by many in the field, as an essential part of the healthcare team,

Arts and cultural groupies rejoice! At last there is proof that engaging in our favourite pastime brings benefits to both mind and body, but this is a newly accepted philosophy that – although already underway – may take time to gain general understanding and acceptance; and to be implemented in society at large. This is vital information for the global population, for a society obsessed with power and wealth, for developing countries and in the coming digital world; if you are young, take note for the future, and if you are in the second half of your life, there is no time to waste. Seize this knowledge, embrace the arts, engage with your culture, embellish your life and reap the benefits. Feel better, optimizing your chances of good health to live longer, be happy and help the world – at least by example. Medical studies show that elderly people live longer and better when their soul is cared for – when the creative side of their brain is engaged, not just their bodily needs.

And let us make it clear that when we speak of achieving health and wellbeing through the arts we are not just talking about the ill and disadvantaged here, but all of us, of all ages, and that means you – and your daughter, your son, grandchildren, workmates and next-door neighbours.

For being healthy is not only about the things that go on in a doctor’s office like checking blood pressure or taking a cholesterol test (although those numbers are important). As Arianna Huffington discovered, health is about waking up in the morning feeling well, like finding yourself in your virtual garden every day. It’s about managing stress, eating well, moving more, and the countless small things we can do to take care of both our bodies and our minds. It is also about maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends, and about developing a sense of purpose and connection to a community.

Governments round the globe, wake up! It’s time to embrace the new thinking, to fully accept the fact that art and science are directly connected – and that this means a radical change in general societal attitudes, specifically in medical care. The key to much that is wrong in the world lies in addressing the issue of mental health. While a percentage of doctors, research scientists and healthcare workers have been gathering evidence for some years in avenues such as music therapy, the new thinking still needs to be accepted in the public arena. The evidence now being assembled points to a new model of healing focused on the whole person – and on preventative care. This will require a major restructuring of the healthcare system. The plan is that arts and artists will become – and have already been recognised by many in the field, as an essential part of the healthcare team, in implementing design, arts and exercise programs into the regular regime.

Doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers are working with artists and musicians to help heal people of all ages and with many conditions, including those with cancer and AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, learning difficulties, brain damage from strokes and accidents and other trauma.

Imagine a scenario where your doctor tells you that the best medicine he or she can prescribe for you is joining a choir, or buying a season pass to the theatre.


Hospitals all over the world are now incorporating music and art into patient care. Plus, the most progressive university medical centres are now integrating art into their programs, inviting artists and musicians to work with patients in facilitating change in hospitals, so that those patients can watch and experience the exhilaration of a symphony, the beauty of an exhibition, paint, play music, or dance. Art and music crack the sterile space of loneliness and fear and expose the patient to the joys of the human spirit. They act as the apothecary of the soul. The spirit freed then helps the body heal. Researchers in hospitals and universities are recording the physical changes observed from replacing fear with hope and rekindling joy in patients by living freely and fully, engaging with themselves and others through the arts.

The critical connection between art and science was recognised as far back as the Hellenic Empire in 4000 BCE and probably before that, but has become lost in time over the intervening centuries. Claims to the validity of the arts + science connection came to be treated with scepticism around the world and eventually became dormant, along with the traditional ongoing battle between the two modalities. The consistent evidence now emerging is confirmation of that early Hellenic Empire belief.

What is now undeniably true is that life is shaped from the inside out – that what happens in our minds has direct bearing on our health and wellbeing. This is validated by science, particularly the development of knowledge about the flexibility of the brain. Moreover, the process of going inside ourselves through engaging in arts and culture is a proven key in the wider world to the development of education, social welfare, issues of unemployment, homelessness, mental health, rehabilitation, repatriation, and for the health, wellbeing and longevity of every one of us.

Creativity is there in all of us. Let’s rid ourselves once and for all of the myth that art is only for the chosen few.

This is your call to articipate. And that can be either as a member of the audience and/or taking part in creating a piece of art yourself – in whichever art form you choose, be it dance, drama, film, the visual arts, theatre, literature, design or in the new digital arena. All these types of activities bring you in contact with other people and offer opportunities for interaction and friendship, self-development, fulfilment and recovery.

Let me implore you to expose yourself to arts and culture and enjoy your life to the full – to live healthily and happily, engaged in, and contributing to, the community of your choice. Creativity is there in all of us. Let’s rid ourselves once and for all of the myth that art is only for the chosen few. Like the member of the Melbourne, Australia-based Massive and Hip Hop Choirs formed from a group of 18–26 year old itinerant drinkers hanging out in a park in the mixed social-economic suburb of Footscray, who said: “Music had always been part of my life. I just never know how to release it.”

Singing, dancing, painting, writing – choose what appeals to you and makes you feel most alive. What coloured your imagination as a child? Did you enjoy arts and crafts at kindergarten or primary school? Did you knit or sew? Play the drum?

To begin with, you have your culture – your country, nationality, what it stands for and how you relate to it. How do you react to your national anthem? Or the choice of a new national flag – like the outcry in New Zealand over the 2016 poll, which resulted in no change at all? Culture is the one thing that offers you the capacity and freedom to express your beliefs and heritage creatively, as in the virtual garden you envisioned at the beginning of this chapter. Let me say out loud again that the arts are valuable, artists are essential and arts education and participation are critical for keeping us creative and competitive in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.

Society across the cosmos needs to seriously rethink the value of arts and culture as a vital key to health and wellbeing – and particularly for those with special needs. In a 2015 essay from Arts and America: Arts, Culture, and the Future of America’s Communities, writer Judy Rollins stated: “The nature of the arts with its focus on personal choice and self-expression, renders it a perfect tool for assuring person-centred care and care for the whole person.”

The British arts and health guru Mike White, who died in 2015, was one of the leaders of this new perspective and one of the major activists in making it occur. He often told of his conversion to the cause while he was working with a Midlands theatre company. He was approached by a doctor, new to a local practice, who was looking for an arts worker to sit in his waiting room and talk to the patients. He believed that many of them had more need for attention than treatment. Mike White responded to the call, and was subsequently convinced to change the whole focus of his profession. The experience made him aware of the large number of psychosomatic health conditions that the medical profession was not prepared for; of how much more there is to health than just curing disease. Talking to those patients was a springboard in making him aware of the importance of continuing that dialogue, of convincing people to be involved, and of developing communication between the two sectors.

The experiment resulted in a marked decline in consultations in the practice and subsequent requests for prescriptions. The doctor’s thinking was way ahead of others’ in the medical profession. Perhaps it was also one of the first small turning points in the wider field of changing the thinking about healthcare.

Much as this matters to all of us now, the message is crucial for the next generation. For engaging in arts and culture breathes life into communities, and we naturally form communities when we engage in arts and cultural groups. Life is changing so rapidly in the way we work and relate to others, that our fundamental connection to community is becoming more important as we work increasingly in isolation from our colleagues, friends and family. We need our tribes to relate to, for our sense of belonging and support. While social media plays a large part in obliterating loneliness in our present age, we need to beware of the danger of solely depending on this virtual vehicle for all our needs. It could be disconnecting us from the real world. Give a thought to whether your Facebook friends will call you when you’re sick. Do they live near enough to meet you on a regular basis for coffee and a chat? Will they even know if you’re sick? Will anyone be there for you?

A 2016 report from the Mental Health Foundation in the US uncovered the alarming fact that 18–34 year olds are more likely to suffer from loneliness than those over 55 years. The report suggested that younger generations might be feeling progressively more isolated and that the many health effects associated with loneliness are cumulative; that if we want to prevent loneliness-related cardiovascular disease among 60 year olds, we need to start addressing people in their 20s.

The benefits of engaging in arts and culture are manifold in offsetting the growing social need for connection and the triggers of loneliness such as unemployment, low income and unaffordable housing. Think of the hope generated for groups of homeless people like the members of the Choir of Hard Knocks in Melbourne, Australia, and the Orcheste de Instrumente Reciclados (The Recycled Orchestra) of Cateura, Paraguay – one of the poorest places in South America. Both of these programs changed the lives of many underprivileged people. The Orcheste exists through the determined vision of its director and of the provision of musical instruments ingeniously fashioned by a local carpenter from tins, drainage pipes and such recycled materials found in a rubbish tip.

“When I play my violin,” says 15-year-old Ada Rios, the orchestra’s First Violinist, “I feel like I’m in another world. I’m transported to a beautiful place with clear skies and open fields, lots of green and no trash or contamination, it’s just me alone playing my violin.”

Ada Rios has found her virtual garden and been offered the chance of a future.

One of the major benefits of engaging in arts and culture is that it helps us keep active in mind and body from the beginning of life until the end, offsetting loneliness, giving a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging and in the case of the underprivileged like Ada Rios, of hope and opportunity, and bringing beauty and sensuality into our lives. Engaging in arts and culture on a regular basis brings the bonus of familiarity with these pleasures – a pot of gold at the edge of our consciousness to dip into when we need it to change the colour of our thoughts.

Never has connecting with arts and culture been as important in this changing world in offering a pathway to greater mutual understanding between Asia, America, Africa, The Middle East and Europe, and in the rebuilding of the lives of the growing numbers of displaced people and refugees. The arts are a vital tool in healing trauma and forging new beginnings, a common language across voids of political and religious distress. They are used extensively by aid agencies such as Art Refuge UK, operating in camps across Europe and in disaster- affected countries such as post-2015 earthquake Nepal. In the eyes of many city and regional policy planners today, culture provides strategic “tools” to fight poverty by broadening the capacities and opportunities of vulnerable groups. The arts offer opportunities for people to work through their losses and progress to new beginnings, or to regain a sense of belonging. This was brought home to me in 2016 during two months spent living in Nepal. On field trips to rural areas and mixing with the community of Kathmandu, I became aware of a growing movement of start-up rehabilitation programs run by dedicated young Nepali people, some of whom had returned to their home country since the earthquake.

And in the midst of the 2016 chaos of the overflowing refugee camp at Calais, a group of young Sudanese men found purpose in planning an event to celebrate their particular tribe. Arriving at a workshop with two bags filled with white T-shirts, they pushed aside the stress of their homeless situation for two days, absorbing themselves in meticulously copying images of their traditional tribal artifacts on all the T-shirts, front and back.

And in Sydney, Australia, a group of teenage refugees are gaining confidence and connection to a community through a program of “groove therapy” hip-hop and street dance classes run by a teacher who emigrated from the United Arab Republic herself as a child.

This book speaks to all such people, those with special needs, and all generations, particularly to those who have reached their “golden years” – we, who are retired or only working part-time, feeling a little lost in the transition from an active working life to a more leisurely one in this changing digital world. We are all looking for health, happiness and purpose now and in the next stage of our lives. It is never too soon – or too late.

Nor need we have depressingly low expectations of old age. A recent study issued by the Arts Council England revealed:

  • 76% of older people say arts and culture is important in making them feel happy
  • 57% say arts and culture is important in helping them meet other people
  • 60% say it is important in encouraging them to get out and about.
    With the global older population significantly growing and the baby boomer generation joining the ranks, engaging in art and cultural activities could help tackle the concerning social issues of loneliness and isolation that retirement can engender.

A UK research study published in the medical journal BMJ Open in February 2016 concluded that retiring from work is a major life transition and one of the key challenges to our health and wellbeing. Large-scale longitudinal studies indicated that around 25% of retirees in the US and around 10% of retirees in Germany experienced a significant drop in health and wellbeing after retiring. These figures point to the fact that retirement has significant costs for individuals and for society at large.

Meta-analytic evidence has shown that people’s social relationships with others are a significant contributor to longevity – stronger than other health behaviours such as physical exercise, smoking or alcohol consumption. Similarly, long-term evidence indicates that social engagement has major bearing on key aspects of health, reducing depression and enhancing cognitive health.

The BMJ Open report argues that retirement has an important bearing on health and quality of life because it typically involves relinquishing social group memberships. The Baring Foundation in the UK has acknowledged this missing link for older people in funding research into a “Campaign to End Loneliness,” which advocates “engaging the talent, experience and enthusiasm of older people in the creative arts,” as a powerful tool to tackle this scourge.

The “Campaign to End Loneliness” is a network of national, regional and local organisations and people that has been operating in the UK since 2011, working on community action, good practice and research to ensure that:

1. People most at risk of loneliness are reached and supported

2. Services and activities are more effective at addressing loneliness

3. A wider range of loneliness services and activities are developed.

By drawing on an international research hub network of university academics, other researchers and practitioners working to increase and develop the evidence base of loneliness in older age, the campaign identified the following issues:

  • 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003)
  • Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010)
  • Two fifths of all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK, 2014)
  • 63% of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are
    separated or divorced, report feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013)
  • 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in
    excellent health (Beaumont, 2013)
  • A higher percentage of women than men report
    feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013).
    The issue of loneliness has become more complex with the rapid increase of the aged population, which can no longer be addressed as a homogenous group. The needs of physically, socially and economically diverse groups such as LGBT people, those suffering from life- threatening diseases, people with disabilities, ethnic and religious groups, and those in care homes and with other special needs, all require individual focus. A positive example of organisations that provide that focus is Project Art Works in Hastings UK, which works with people of all ages who have complex needs. It helps them find both a place in society and a purpose, and works to alter public attitudes towards disability by presenting exhibitions of their work. During 2013, a staggering 10,000 people visited the exhibitions, resulting in a very positive effect on the personal expression, development and social interaction of the participants. The father of one such participant was
    quoted in a 2015 report as saying: “Project Art Works is fundamental to [his daughter’s] life and 100% essential for her wellbeing – her emotional wellbeing – if it were to go from her life it would be a massive and inexplicably bad loss.”

A study of multiple reports on loneliness in the older generation in the UK all identified the following overall factors:

  • Loneliness correlates strongly with other problems and is associated with poor physical and mental health.
  • Older people need a broad range of opportunities and activities to help tackle loneliness. These can include care and befriending support, but just as important are opportunities that connect them to their communities, such as faith, learning, fitness, leisure and cultural activities.
  • The arts are an effective way to tackle loneliness but can be overlooked by older people’s services.
  • There are many good examples of arts work with older people including those living with dementia and in care homes.
  • The arts exemplify the “five ways to wellbeing”: connect, be active, keep learning, take notice and give.
  • Feeling valued, creative expression, using skills and engaging with other older people all build
    friendships and enhance feelings of wellbeing, which strengthens resilience in tough times.
  • Commissioners and organisations serving older people should support the arts as part of a spectrum of activities to tackle loneliness and poor
    quality of life in older age.
  • Artists and arts organisations should be alive to
    the social dimension of their practice in working with older people.
    Key risk factors include: being over 80, on a low income, in poor physical or mental health, living alone, in isolated rural or deprived urban communities. The scale of loneliness and isolation among older people in the UK is disturbing.
    Fortunately, these statistics have generated action. It is encouraging to learn that 94% of participants of Bealtaine, a month-long arts festival for older people established in the Republic of Ireland in 2000, said that the festival had increased their engagement with the local community; and 98% said that their attendance had increased their social networking overall.
    The results of these reports make it clear that keeping in touch with your friends and a range of people of all ages and keeping engaged in activities that give you purpose, is of vital importance to your health and wellbeing. Invite your friends to dance with you. Make sure you add them into your virtual
    garden and continue to introduce yourself to new people and ideas.

All these reports demonstrate the crucial cultural shift required to reunite the powerful combination of arts and science – recognised by the Greeks in the 4th century BCE, during the period of Alexander the Great – in order for us to live healthier, happier, longer lives. Ironically, in recognising this power, the philosopher Aristotle advocated the toning down of exposure of music to youth, because of the way in which it manipulated their emotions. Imagine the outcry if any such political decree was issued in the wired up, plugged 21st century.

This change has already begun, but I reiterate that it must be accelerated. Those of us who are in the second half of our lives cannot afford to wait. Come with me on my journey in discovering and then activating this truth. We must maximize this marriage between arts and science now in order to reap the benefits during the remaining years of our lives.

Wellbeing, or welfare, refers to the condition or state of being well, contented and satisfied with life … Wellbeing (and so quality of life) has several components, including physical, mental, social and spiritual. Wellbeing and quality of life are also used in a collective sense to describe how well a society satisfies people’s wants and needs.

You can buy The Arts Apothecary by Jill Rivers here



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