How the arts can help children's mental health

How the arts can help children's mental health

Children's mental health services are struggling to cope. The arts offer some alternative solutions.

How the arts can help children's mental health
"The value of arts-led interventions is commonly overlooked in healthcare." - Katherine Taylor, Fellow

In the UK, one in ten children need support or treatment with their mental health, and rates of anxiety and self-harm are rising. Much of this distress can be resolved using evidence-based options, but only a quarter of children and young people with mental health issues are currently receiving the treatment they need.

In October 2014, NHS England and the Department of Health jointly published a plan for improving this, called ‘Improving access to mental health services by 2020’. But while demand for specialist services is rising, the funds and resources required are lacking. Mental health services are stretched.

In addition, they are not always the preferred option for people wishing to recover their wellbeing. We know that in current and conventional NHS mental health services, only half of young people will reliably recover. And of all the children and young people who might benefit from mental health support, many choose not to engage with formal mental health services and their clinical treatments.

For the last 15 years, I’ve been researching positive outcomes in mental health and became interested in creative approaches, after researching their value in managing extremes of mood, and in dementia services. My Churchill Fellowship in 2017 aimed to explore and support creative and cultural options in mental health service provision, in Finland and the USA.

My application followed three precious years of working at Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University. During this time, I worked clinically in child and family services, where imagination, play and creativity clearly support effective interventions. Through both research and clinical practice, it had become increasingly clear to me that the value and significance of arts-led interventions is commonly overlooked in healthcare.

Benefiting from existing links between Manchester’s Arts for Health and Finland’s TAIKE Centre for Arts Promotion, my first trip was a tour of Finland’s examples of best practice in the arts in. Their five-year Key Project aimed to embed culture and the arts into healthcare for the wellbeing of patients, staff and wider communities alike. Among my recommendations from Finland was that senior-level buy-in and effective leadership are essential if such initiatives are to flourish in the health and social sector.
In New York, the organisations I visited were often vibrant and profound – and demonstrating significant impact on their communities. For example, I witnessed poetry act as a catalyst for uncommon and moving interactions between prison officers and young women in the Riker’s Island prison.

Back in the UK, I have found that Greater Manchester’s devolution plan and its THRIVE team have formed a fitting context for me to implement my recommendations. In March 2019, I joined Greater Manchester’s iTHRIVE team to lead a programme unique to the area: Arts and Mental Health Innovation.
THRIVE is a person-centred and assets-based model, which enables better access to support, improves links between sectors, and promotes a broader, more substantial range of treatment options. At the heart of the THRIVE offer is decision-making shared with young people and families, and a recognition that to successfully engage young people and families, services must seek to innovatively engage with their interests, and in their language.

We aim to demonstrate that creative, cultural and arts-led provision are credible and necessary treatment options for young people seeking mental health support. Our programme will identify, implement and evaluate good practice, develop links between the health and creative sectors, and seek to engage young people using the arts to help them thrive.

My hope is that the arts will reclaim their traditional place in supporting wellbeing through expression and reflection, emotional regulation, and in helping beneficiaries and professionals to engage with distress and move towards empowering, collaborative and child-friendly routes to recovery.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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