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Arts and humanities can "give everyone a better shot at a happier life"

Paul Crawford
Paul Crawford, Professor of Health Humanities at Nottingham University

The arts and humanities are “the public's greatest route towards health and wellbeing” and a “shadow NHS”, according to the world's first Professor of Health Humanities, Paul Crawford.

Paul Crawford from Nottingham University is the founding father of this rapidly developing, global discipline, and currently leads various Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded research projects applying the arts and humanities to inform and transform healthcare, health and wellbeing.

“Initially I set up research groups to study the language that is used in healthcare and went on to examine how mental illness is represented in fiction,” he says. “But I soon wanted to incorporate the rich, creative work across the arts and humanities more broadly; I decided that I wanted to set up a new field to focus research within this area.

“I felt that up until this point, medical humanities work was rather limited to medical perspectives on the arts and humanities, and more geared towards training doctors and sometimes nurses than anything else. It was focused on the history of medicine, the philosophy of medicine, anatomical drawing etc.  It seemed like a closed shop for a particular or specific professional population.”

Instead, Professor Crawford felt research should be more focused on the needs of the general public and their sense of what does them good.

“We began to develop a more inclusive and applied approach,” he says. “And, with the help of the AHRC, who immediately recognised the value of this, we forged ahead!”

Among other projects, the AHRC funded the International Health Humanities Network which has influenced the rapid growth of research units and courses in health humanities worldwide.

“I'm very proud of this and other related achievements. To have driven a new field that is travelling around the world - it's really quite wonderful. I couldn't be more delighted. But it all moves on beyond the individual. Health humanities is a big family of researchers who want to get stuff done and help folk! The cat is out of the bag. I can't – and nor would I want to – control what goes on in health humanities globally.”

This decentralised, democratic approach is at the heart of the health humanities and why it is taking off.

Paul Crawford
Professor Paul Crawford has led the development of the new Health Humanities Medal

“Not everything for health and wellbeing comes from professionals, from dedicated therapists,” says Professor Crawford. “Members of the general public can make themselves and others better through many different creative actions and activities. The health humanities are like a shadow NHS. They are the public's greatest route towards health and wellbeing.  They are not there to replace healthcare but to give everyone a better shot at a happier life.

“We see now a much more democratised recognition that the arts and humanities are as important as blood tests, injections or pills for our wellbeing. You don't need a prescription to go to an arts or drumming group or join a choir and yet this can bring huge benefits.”

But no patient is an island, and Professor Crawford's research has also demonstrated people with health problems, family carers and health, social care and education professionals can improve health and wellbeing together through creative activities – using creative practice as mutual recovery.

“We see so many bad news stories in the press about our collapsing NHS. It's not just people with an “illness” who need to recover, their carers also may need some help dealing with the pressure of their work and that's why we need more shared cultural experiences that bring those people together.”

Through the International Health Humanities Network there has now been a substantial body of work looking at how communities can recover through collective artistic practice.

“We all depend on many resources,” says Professor Crawford. “We need medical resources, of course. But not everything in our society that brings us health and wellbeing needs to be directed by medics. Not everything needs a medical model or a medical explanation.

“Whether you are a doctor, a nurse, an occupational therapist, a patient, a friend or family carer – the arts and humanities are available to you. For example, if you have low to moderate depression, reading groups can help. This is just one of many examples.”

But while it might be tempting for some to dismiss “empowering patients” as part of a cost-cutting exercise within a struggling NHS, Professor Crawford is quick to dismiss this argument.  

“This isn't about saying 'we've got less resources, so you need to sort yourselves out and leave the medics alone',” he says.

It's about saying that there are wonderful resources – resources beyond what medical professionals can provide – and you don't need 'official' permission to access them.”

“We need to get off the hook that medical, scientific knowledge is the only game in town.

“What would happen to public wellbeing overnight if people couldn't read, share stories or tell jokes? Or if they couldn't watch films, enjoy theatre, dance, visit museums and galleries? Or sing, play, listen or dance to music?  Or engage with the many other crafts, creative sports and activities going on across the land?

“I can't imagine that world. Without the arts and humanities – aka health humanities – we would be in a really, really bad place.”


Visit our Health and Humanties 2018 call page to see how you could apply to this competition

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