Role of arts in public health capturing interest: Health programs, community projects tap into creative side

Donya Currie

As a student, physician Sandro Galea took the typical pre-med college coursework, including biology, chemistry, physics and math, leaving little room for creative pursuits.

“I don’t know that I ever thought it was possible to combine science and art,” Galea, MD, MPH, DrPH, now dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told The Nation’s Health. “We stream kids into these channels of learning. There’s the science kids and there’s the arts kids. If you’re a science kid, you don’t really end up taking any arts courses or humanities courses.”

Given the expanding research linking arts to improved physical and mental health, Galea is one of a growing number of public health professionals advocating for arts in public health. He called for bridging “the gap between art and public health” in a recent Health Promotion Practice supplemental issue.

Jill Sonke, PhD, who coedited the issue, has been working to do just that. “I think the biggest growth area in the overarching arts in health field is arts in public health,” Sonke, director of the University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine, told The Nation’s Health. “A lot of research these days is establishing arts participation as a health behavior. That’s a really important thing for us to think about in public health.”

“A lot of research these days is establishing arts participation as a health behavior. That’s a really important thing for us to think about in public health.“

—Jill Sonke

According to the Creating Healthy Communities: Arts + Public Health in America initiative, the arts can be especially beneficial for public health in five key areas: collective trauma, racism, mental health, social exclusion and isolation, and chronic disease.

When Sonke and colleagues began work on the healthy communities initiative in 2017, she said they assumed building arts in public health would be a lot like building a field of arts in health care, which she likened to “pushing a boulder up a hill” to bring a new idea into the mainstream.

But when the initiative launched, she joked with a colleague that “it was like chasing a boulder down a hill. There was just so much readiness…not just readiness, but eagerness.”

That might be because so many public health professionals already are either artists themselves or work with artists to improve community health and well-being.

Clint Steib, MPH, who oversees HIV prevention services at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He first worked as a newspaper photographer before being drawn to HIV prevention outreach and then completing an art therapy certification program at the New School in New York. After moving to Philadelphia and becoming an HIV tester at a community health center, he joined with the center’s art therapist to co-lead an art therapy group for nearly nine years.

“What I got out of it, and what I saw other people get out of it, was just amazing,” he told The Nation’s Health.

In at least half of U.S. hospitals, arts programming is in place for patients, family members and medical staff. In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, the Institute for Arts in Medicine at UAB Medicine provides dance sessions for adult and adolescent psychiatry patients, sewing and embroidery groups for women with high-risk pregnancies, and musical performances in open spaces such as hospital lobbies.

Kimberly Kirklin, MA, director of the institute, has a bachelor’s degree in music and musical theater and said she came to her current role “like a lot of people, through a circuitous route.”

She started working with the Alys Stephens Center, the performing arts venue on the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus, first in administration and then adding education and outreach to her job description. She watched a local poet inspire kids of all ages during classroom visits to go from cross-armed skepticism to eagerly volunteering to share their writing.

“The arts can be such a powerful connector, a motivator,” Kirklin told The Nation’s Health. “I just started thinking, if this is so powerful in education, maybe there are other ways arts can have an effect on people.”

The center started a program for senior adults in subsidized housing that led to a dance troupe. Kirklin enrolled in an online graduate program through the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine. She used what she learned to inform work first at an Alabama children’s hospital and then later at the Institute for Arts in Medicine.

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As more science makes the connection between art and health, university programs have adapted to keep up. A growing number of U.S. schools offer graduate studies that bring art together with public and community health practice.
Photo by OkinawaPottery, courtesy iStockphoto

Public health, art coming together

Just as arts in medicine programs can impact the health and well-being of individuals, combining the arts with public health has the potential to benefit entire communities, according to a 2019 white paper.

Released by ArtPlace America and the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine, “Creating Healthy Communities Through Cross-Sector Collaboration,” called for arts to have a greater role in public health work.

“Through-out human history, the arts have been used to accomplish the very things public health is currently challenged to do: support wellbeing, create social connection, spark and sustain movements, communicate across difference, and transform systems and cultures,” the white paper said. “However, we are missing the power of their combined strength.”

Public health-led community art projects can build social cohesiveness among residents.
Photo by OkinawaPottery, courtesy iStockphoto

Arts and culture should be included in the next iteration of Healthy People, which sets health objectives for the nation for a 10-year period, according to the paper’s authors.

“That has been, for me, one of the really important targets,”

Sonke said. Sonke serves as senior advisor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Confidence Team on the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. As part of her work, Sonke created field guides to help health departments develop cross sector partnerships and arts-based vaccine communications campaigns.

While accreditation standards for public health and arts can be a barrier to integrating the fields, Galea said, collaboration is blooming via everything from formal degree programs to student and community outreach.

At Boston University, a campuswide Arts Initiative aims to ensure “the arts are fundamental to the student experience,” and the Arts-Lab @Med Campus program calls on artists to “reencounter art’s transformative power.”

The University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine offers a master’s degree and graduate certificate in Arts in Medicine and also a graduate certificate in arts in public health. Graduate students at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public health can choose a minor in arts and community health.

The Humanities, Arts and Public Health Practice at Yale University, which “tbrings together the rich perspectives and contributions of humanities, arts and public health practice to improve health outcomes in diverse communities” is another example. One current project, the Pandemic Archive, seeks to document what it has been like to live during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has starkly illustrated the need for hyper-local solutions, Sonke said, and arts are playing a key role in many local and statewide pandemic response efforts. For example, through the San Francisco Creative Corps, painters created public art with key public messages. And performing artists became Community Health Ambassadors, sharing pandemic safety information in-person and online. They also created short videos encouraging vaccination.

Artists look deeply at communities and the human experience, Sonke said.

“The arts are a mechanism that can drive social change faster than many other approaches that we can take in public health,” she said.

For more information on the Health Promotion Practice arts issue, visit bit.ly/artsissue21. For the white paper on crosssector collaboration, visit bit.ly/paperarts.

By School of Public Health Office of Career Services
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