Mental Health and Arts Education – are we missing a trick?

By Phil Tattersall-King, Director of Drama, Dance and Bedales Arts Programme

Hot on the heels of the Prime Minister announcing that the government is to reform mental health with a particular focus on young people, a new report from the Culture Learning Alliance (CLA) has confirmed that taking part in arts subjects can help children to improve their academic and social skills, and to express their ideas. On the face of it, these are pretty much distinct events, but I would argue that perhaps they shouldn’t be.

One in four people has a mental disorder at some point in their life, and young people are affected disproportionately; over half of mental health problems start by the age of 14 and 75% by 18. To this end, the government is to provide additional training for teachers, an extra £15m for community care, and improved support in the workplace. Meanwhile, at the launch of the CLA report Imagine Nation: the value of Cultural Learning, president of the Royal Academy of Dance Darcey Bussell called for ‘physical literacy’ to be taught four times a week, and for protection and expansion of the arts curriculum in schools. The CLA observes that we have seen a decline in the number of children taking arts subjects, a reduction in arts teaching hours and fewer arts teachers employed. In turn, a government spokesperson has stressed the importance of music and the arts for transforming lives and providing opportunities.

For my own part, I wonder whether schools, and the arts in particular, might have an important role to play in the development of good mental health in young people, and offer government an educational option beyond dealing better with the obverse.

All over the world, staff and students in drama departments strive to provide a glimpse of worlds different from the ones we inhabit. Sometimes it’s a better world, sometimes worse – either way, theatre aims to change us as we get lost in the one we have created. The theatre of Bryony Kimmings and the spoken word of Cecilia Knapp do so to raise overtly issues concerning mental health that might otherwise remain hidden, and we have been keen to introduce students to their work. No less importantly, our students are increasingly the producers and thinkers behind theatrical ideas. We regularly stage devised performances, and exam boards all encourage students to devise their own work. The struggles involved with presenting their thoughts in this way have raised the game of a drama student, and made them wiser to the complexities of relationships. I can think of many students about whom teachers in other subjects have expressed concerns that they don’t ‘share’ in class, learning through drama that they can say their piece, and that the world will not end if they are challenged. It is immensely gratifying when, invariably, we find that this new confidence has transferred to their lessons in other subjects.

Whilst my own experience is purely anecdotal, it chimes with the CLA’s thoroughly-evidenced findings that theatre and drama improve young people’s social skills and emotional wellbeing, and that engaging in the arts increases young people’s resilience. The report cites evidence from the UK that art and music-related leisure at the age of 16 increases the odds of civic engagement at age 29 and, according to American studies, that an arts-rich education results in a greater likelihood of voting and participation in a political campaign. It also cites findings from a recent systematic review of relevant literature which found that volunteering and caring are both developed by arts engagement.

The social benefits of such outcomes are pretty much self-evident, but a closer look at the idea of ‘resilience’ – an idea with particular currency in discussions of education and young people’s mental health in the UK – suggests that there is a significant health benefit as well.

Adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg draws on the pioneering work of Emmy Werner in developing strategies to help young people develop resilience, which he describes as the capacity of young people to face, overcome, and be strengthened and even transformed by adversity. Werner’s work in Hawaii – in an area with high levels of adult unemployment and substance abuse – found that two thirds of young people exhibited destructive behaviours. Crucially, however, a third did not, and she found that these young people shared important characteristics – a finding reinforced in subsequent research.

Gregg stresses that, amongst other things, resilient young people develop absorbing passions, with their self-esteem boosted by having developed expertise, thus reinforcing the importance of practice and persistence. They have the facility of seeing life ‘as it is’ – knowing that bad things happen and how to deal with them, but also knowing that there are plenty of good things. They also do good, thus benefiting from a boost to their immune system and general well-being, and enjoy a sense of being part of something greater than themselves, such as a philosophy or a cause.

Looked at purely through the prism of young people’s mental health (there are other compelling reasons, of course), there would seem to a health benefit implicit in making arts education more of a priority. I believe that recent years have seen the arts marginalised in government’s enthusiasm for STEM subjects and the wider belief that the value of school is best understood in terms of GDP and economic competitiveness. If Theresa May is really serious about safeguarding young people’s mental health, she might do well to rethink – school is surely about all aspects of young people’s wellbeing, and there is a clear case for understanding arts education is essential in this regard.