Use of Artwork

The power of art as a therapeutic tool

Dan Savage, a visual artist and designer who specialises in creating integral artwork for healthcare environments, puts a powerful case for art’s therapeutic benefits in mental healthcare environments, and explains how to select artworks that calm, relax, and positively engage service-users. Over the past 10 years he has delivered 24 art schemes for NHS Trusts and hospices, and a further 11 public art schemes for local authorities, educational establishments, and commercial clients.

We’ve heard it all before – why spend money on art in hospitals if it could be used on medicine? But what if art is a type of treatment – a stress- buster that reduces anxiety, lowers blood pressure, and leads to better health outcomes and shorter stays in hospital? Over the past 30 years academic research has overwhelmingly indicated the positive effect that art can have in reducing anxiety and stress in healthcare environments. It has been proven to be very beneficial to service-users’ overall health and wellbeing, and this in turn can lead to tangible financial benefits for hospitals by reducing stay lengths. Healthcare institutions are increasingly recognising the value of integrating high quality artwork into capital schemes, and research studies are narrowing the focus to look at the most effective types of artwork for these environments.

A ‘POSITIVE DISTRACTION’ FOR ALL One of the main reasons art can be so successful in healthcare is its ability to create a positive distraction – defined by Dr Roger Ulrich (Professor of Architecture at the Center for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden) as ‘holding the viewer’s interest and inducing positive feelings but not causing any further stress’. Naturally we all respond to artworks in different ways – one man’s meat can be another man’s poison. Sometimes we don’t know why we like or do not like an artwork. Our responses can be based on a number of factors, including

‘Art in mental healthcare environments can humanise spaces, helping to make them calming, positive, and welcoming’

innate feelings; personal life experience; cultural/environmental/religious influences; education, or some other learned response. Therefore creating artworks to which the majority of people will respond positively can represent a real challenge. This emphasises the need to follow an evidence-based design approach to commissioning and creating art for healthcare environments that is based on real- life research studies, and is focused on the needs of service-users and their wellbeing. People do not choose to be admitted to hospital, and they typically encounter high levels of emotional stimulation when they are there, so do not wish to be mentally challenged while in a hospital setting. Most are not art connoisseurs, and some may have a negative impression of contemporary art. However, from research we know that the right type of art will

create a therapeutic environment to help everyone, not just those who are already tuned in to appreciating art.

NATURE VERSUS ABSTRACT THEMES So what type of art has been proven to be beneficial? In healthcare environments there is a well-supported preference for representational art that features calm and familiar nature-based subjects, subdued colours, and well-balanced or symmetrical compositional elements. These types of artwork evoke the most favourable response, but importantly deliver the most positive health outcomes too. Dr Ulrich found that artworks featuring elements of nature have the ability to foster stress recovery because they elicit positive feelings and hold a person’s attention and interest, whilst reducing negative emotions and stressful thoughts. At Tyne, a locked rehabilitation service for people with learning disabilities in Morpeth, a photographic wall mural of a woodland path evokes memories of youthful walks and tree climbing, and was inspired by the users, who took their own photos of the woodland within the hospital grounds. The preference for such artwork is backed up by physiological effects, as Dr Richard Coss (Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of California) discovered when acutely stressed patients recorded lower systolic blood pressure readings when exposed to serene images of nature than those who were exposed to arousing pictures or no pictures at all.

Dan Savage’s artwork at the Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust’s recently opened Dementia Assessment Centre is based on hand-drawn familiar Bradford and Airedale scenes. The calming murals, which reference colours used in the interior scheme, convey a sense of space, and act as conversation prompts for service-users and visitors.

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All photos courtesy of Dan Savage.

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