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The proof that the arts can improve health and well-being

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. We asked Rivers about the motivation for writing the book. (Daily Review will publish two chapters from the The Arts Apothecary on Sunday).


Those who work in the arts have always known that the arts are more than just “nice to have”. In this sporting nation of the lingering cultural cringe, the common consensus has been that the arts are elitist. It was the same in New Zealand where I grew up in a rural society of sheep farmers;  the arts might mean an amateur theatre once a year.

After moving to Australia and writing about the arts and working for the The Australian Ballet I realised how important it was “demystify” the arts. I moved to country Victoria a few years ago and started an “Open Studios” program to introduce audiences to artists in their studios. Many warned me the program wouldn’t work and that the “arty” types in the region were a closed circle or possibly a “different breed”. It made me more determined to try to make arts part of everyday life. So I started a second program of “Behind the Scenes” and “Conversations with Artists and Arts Leaders” to reveal them as part of the same breed as other people.

The germ of the idea for the book The Arts Apothecary began during my “Conversations” program. I came across a research paper by Arts Council England on the benefits of arts and culture to health and wellbeing which proved that engaging in arts and culture could change lives. It had triggered multiple programs in the UK including the Happiness Museum project, one of which set up a chemist shop giving out cultural “prescriptions” to locate various art works – The Paper Apothecary, and hence the name of my book.

Researching The Arts Apothecary revealed many more studies and projects underway in hospitals and universities across the world. All added to the growing body of evidence that showed positive changes to health and well-being across cultures and socio-economic groups.

I visited the Chelsea Westminster Hospital in the UK. The entire light-filled hospital has been designed around arts and culture with installations, sculpture and artworks on each floor and banners hanging from mezzanines. The hospital has its own cinema and a program of innovative partnerships with major arts companies including the Ballet Rambert, Chickenshed Theatre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Royal College of Music and The Royal College of Art.

Books about neuroplasticity convinced me further. As did Harvard Medical School and Harvard Public School of Public Health Professor Atul Gwande in his book Being Mortal:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think it is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well being. And well being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life or when debilitated but all along the way. The one thing that is undeniably vital for well being to exist is culture and the capacity and freedom to express its beliefs and heritage creatively.

I wrote The Arts Apothecary because research and work around the world is making positive changes for disadvantaged and displaced peoples as well as young and older people suffering from lack of purpose and physical or dementia- associated conditions.

I’m not saying that the arts can cure people but they can go far in easing the way. I’m committed to this message and am in awe of the unsung heroes working in arts and culture to have made the world a better place.

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