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10 October 2019

Arts and Mental Health Activity in the UK – First Impressions

David Cutler
The first draft of a mapping report on Arts & Mental Health in advance of our new grants programme is nearly ready … we would love your feedback on our first impressions of the field

Today is World Mental Health Day. Next year the focus of our Arts programme will turn towards arts and mental health. In early 2020 we will publish an account of what is happening in the UK as the prelude to our funding programme which may continue for a further ten years.

The first draft is finally nearly ready … and today seems a good day to ask for your feedback on some of my first impressions.

Over the last year I have visited over forty organisations delivering creative activity with people living with mental health problems and been in contact with a further 80 or so. It has been a huge privilege and very inspiring. I am deeply grateful to well over 100 people who have generously and enthusiastically taken precious time to speak or write to me.

The research has not been systematic or comprehensive and has been influenced by the traditional funding preferences of the Baring Foundation towards participatory arts activity.

So what have I found?  It is with a lot of trepidation that I have been trying to describe some of the characteristics of the arts and mental health field in the UK as I see it. Here goes..

  1. Complex and hybrid. Definitions of mental health are highly contested and also constantly evolving. The Arts and Mental Health field shares some of the space of participatory arts, disability arts and the art and health sectors. It is at the intersection of creativity, activism and treatment.
  2. Working in this field feels like a vocation. I have met people who are quietly passionate about what they do and often have lived experience of mental health problems themselves.
  3. Broad and varied. There is a good geographical spread of organisations and representation among arts forms.
  4. Longevity but also fragility. There have been specialist organisations and initiatives since at least the early 1980s but significant organisations like Cooltan Arts and the Liverpool Mental Health Consortium have closed in recent years.
  5. Low profile. The field gets little media attention and has attracted the weight of very few well known larger arts organisations. Liverpool Philharmonic is a major exception but not the only one.
  6. Under-researched. I have been told many times that there is plenty of research evidence about the effectiveness in psychological terms of arts in this area but have found only a handful of studies.
  7. Fragmented and small scale. The organisations I met were largely working in isolation, aware of very few peers. Most organisations were small with two to four people working full or part time in this field.
  8. Undervalued by the health sector. Very few organisations were getting any practical financial support from health funders with financing coming from either more general funders like the National Lottery or arts funders.
  9. Tough jobs. Constant funding pressures take their toll and participatory work requires sensitivity, expertise, stamina and resilience. Artists talked about burn-out and the need for greater self-care.
  10. A time of rapid change and opportunity. Increased attention is being paid to mental health in society at large and this will affect the field of Arts and Mental Health in a positive way. The introduction of social prescribing across the NHS England feels both like a major opportunity but also a source of unfunded demand.

Over to the experts! I would be really grateful to hear what you think about my preliminary thoughts. Please email me by 10th November on or message us on Twitter @Baring_Found.