Using the arts for mental health

Using the arts for mental health

Demand for UK mental health services has risen sharply. I am a clinical psychologist in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), and we’ve seen a threefold increase in referrals since 2020. Only one in three children and young people (CYP) with mental health needs can access services,* and even among those we see, around 40% do not improve. Young people themselves highlight access to services and stigma as key issues, and condemn our often gloomy settings. These issues, compounded by a workforce struggling with recruitment and retention, call for change.

"I hope to see arts-based options and creative environments as critical components of future approaches to mental health." - Katherine Taylor, Fellow

The national THRIVE framework for system change emphasises a broader mental health support offer and prioritises the strengths, interests and existing relationships in the lives of CYP. I work at Greater Manchester i-THRIVE, managing the Arts, Culture and Mental Health programme. Diverse evidence suggests that engaging with the arts and culture benefits wellbeing in a wide range of ways** and that group-based arts engagement can promote and improve the mental health of CYP.

Creative and age-appropriate approaches, delivered by a range of partners with blended expertise, can succeed in engaging CYP in conversations and activities that support mental health. Locating support in creative contexts can increase an individual’s autonomy and skills, making recovery more sustainable. However, because there is a lack of standardised evidence, progress in this field has been slow. We must better understand what works for whom. More data is needed on the impacts of creative health options, and commissioners require impacts reported by the arts sector to be expressed in the metrics and outcomes recognised in the NHS.

Our arts and culture programme seeks to address this problem. Throughout 2020, three proof of concepts implementing creative health options in CAMHS tested the practicalities, challenges and solutions of arts-led mental health interventions, co-delivered between the NHS and creative providers. Furthering this learning, innovative creative health offers will take place in 10 areas of Greater Manchester next year. We aim to increase availability and suitability of mental health services for CYP, and facilitate better links between health, social care and community creative providers. Each project will provide both measurable and unexpected outcomes, using a bespoke evaluation kit, co-produced between multiple sectors to be practicable and useful for all areas of expertise. This will support the development of evidence-based arts practices in NHS services.

Such options excite me as a practitioner: for example, knowing that offering an evidence-based singing group to address low mood will provide a safer and potentially more effective option than commonly used pharmaceutical treatments.*** Such options increase patient choice, too – which is crucial for engagement. Moreover, in attempts to address stigma and facilitate conversations about mental health beyond specialist services, researchers have demonstrated that using creative interventions and artists’ stories can effectively educate staff and patients alike on mental health issues.

In 2017, I visited Finland for my Fellowship, where the government’s Key Project has embedded the roles of arts and culture into health and social policies since 2010. I also visited the United States to discover how the arts can be used as tools to heal and support. For example, in New York I visited a downtown studio where people with learning difficulties generated a living from their unique and vibrant artwork.

My professional journey has been influenced by my own beneficial engagement with creativity and the arts and from witnessing similar transformative and life-affirming results in others. My desire is to see the misleading frame of ‘alternative’ dissociated from culture and the arts. Mental health outcomes have not improved in 50 years and rates of poor mental health are rising. In an era when the effectiveness and safety of psychiatric medication is being questioned, we need to offer safer options, as well as context-dependent, person-centred solutions. Evidence indicates a need to think beyond medical definitions of distress and psychiatric symptoms ­- instead foregrounding meaning, purpose and human connectedness. I hope to see arts-based options and creative environments as critical components of future approaches to mental health.

*Five Year Forward View for
NHS England mental health dashboard.
**WHO report.
***Fancourt Effect of singing interventions on symptoms of postnatal depression: three-arm randomised controlled trial.

More information about Katherine's work can be found at her blog:


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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