December 12, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF, Lake Placid News

Have you ever thought of participating in the arts for its health benefits? On Monday, Nov. 11, the World Health Organization released the results of a two-year study that endorsed the value of the arts in keeping people healthy and assisting their recovery from illness, injury and trauma. And it recommended increased use of the arts toward those ends.

Fundamentally, WHO, the lead international agency on health and well-being, is saying that just as going to the gym, hiking through the woods, playing golf or tennis, or skiing and skating are good for your health, so is participating in the arts.

Ask any kid who takes ballet at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, and they’ll tell you they had a workout as intense as any athlete. Try conducting an orchestra for a couple of hours, and you’ll understand why Lake Placid Sinfonietta music directors are in such good shape. Of course, not all health benefits are physical; improving our mental and emotional well-being is equally important, and there the arts excel.

The World Health Organization is an agency of the United Nations that employs more than 7,000 people working out of more than 150 offices to protect and improve public health the world over. The agency, established in 1948 and based in Geneva, Switzerland, works with 194 member states across six regions toward its commitment to achieving better health for everyone.

The agency defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The WHO pursues its mandate through working to improve access to quality essential medicines, health products, and services. WHO prepares for, responds to and seeks to mitigate the risks of acute health emergencies and works to improve monitoring, data, and information. Also, WHO identifies and addresses the social determinants of health and prioritizes health in all policies and healthy settings.

Underlying WHO’s work, training and recommendations are conducting and evaluating data and research, an approach that resulted in its recent announcement on the arts. Daisy Fancourt, associate professor and Wellcome Research Fellow, and Saoirse Finn, visiting researcher, both of the Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare at the University College London, led the study.

The WHO’s initial plan wasn’t to evaluate the health benefits of the arts but look into the importance that culture plays on a theoretical and conceptual front – how cultural values, traditions, and beliefs impact and affect health outcomes. As part of that, they wanted to examine if culture as an activity and a practice had beneficial effects on health.

“We put together an expert group to advise us on the directions we should take,” said Nils Fietje, research officer for the WHO Regional Office for Europe. “After considering the issue, they expressed a strong interest in look into the effects of the arts on health. There was quite a lot of evidence out there (on the benefits of arts) but that it was something that WHO had never really considered. That’s when we got in touch with Daisy, who is one of the leading figures in this area. We asked her if she’d be willing to develop an evidence report on this, she was, and a year and a half later here we are.”

Fancourt and Finn organized their results under two broad headings, Prevention and Promotion, and Management and Treatment. Within Prevention and Promotion, their research demonstrated how the arts could affect the social determinants of health, support child development, encourage health-promoting behaviors, help prevent ill health and support caregiving. Within Management and Treatment, the findings demonstrated how the arts could help people experiencing mental illness and neurodevelopmental and neurological disorders. Also, assist with the management of noncommunicable diseases and support end-of-life care.

Looking to the Adirondacks, we can take pride in knowing and celebrating the pioneering research on the health benefits of the arts for people living with tuberculosis led by doctors Lawrason Brown and Edward Livingston Trudeau, among the first of its kind for people living with a medical health condition. Today, we can find several local examples of using the arts to support people living with trauma.

Creative Healing Connections has been using the arts over the past 20 years to help people; women, in particular, express experiences that are often too difficult to put into words, experiences such as living with cancer, rape and the trauma of combat. Creative Healing Connections staff provide their participants the opportunity to express themselves, be it individually or in concert with others through writing songs, storytelling, music, the visual arts, ritual and movement.

“There is a free flow of ideas that come from deep within that are expressed through creative art, making verses for a song, and building on a story,” said Helen Demong, who leads creative sessions for their participants. “As they hear each-others’ words, they are nodding, feeling the emotion, and know that someone hears and feels their anxieties and the hopes they have. They come out through the arts because they are unforced.”

In an allied vein, for nearly 20 years, the Adirondack Center for Writing as engaged inmates at the Federal Correctional Institute in Ray Brook. One participant wrote, “Through the class, I found that we all have traumas and feelings that are similar even though we have traveled different paths. I learned that writing about our lives is the best way to learn how to heal ourselves and to see how much potential we truly have.”

Further afield, In 2001, the Mark Morris Dance Company began offering free monthly dance classes for people living with Parkinson’s disease. The program was founded on the premise that dance, which requires learning specific expressive movements tied to music, would provide a multitude of mental and physical health benefits along with opportunities for engaging with loved ones in new and mutually beneficial ways. Research and participant outcome studies confirmed their hypnosis, and today Dance for PD has expanded to more than 100 communities in 11 countries.

As for the youth, participating in performing arts programs can help build self-confidence through singing, dancing and acting on stage, engaging in improvisation, and improving motor and communication skills.

Currently, nearly 65 percent of all medical schools use participation in the arts to improve medical students’ observational skills According to David Murphy, a research fellow at Child Trends, the favorable outcomes associated with high levels of arts participation are particularly strong for students from families with lower socioeconomic status.

Today, we can use the WHO’s report on the health benefits of the arts as an added reason for attending the upcoming LPCA Joy to the Children benefit, hosted by the Mirror Lake Inn. Participation in the arts improves the physical and mental health of our youth. It strengthens their resiliency – an excellent reason for supporting a program that engages thousands of kids from throughout our region.