Seeking to get the picture

VHS Chief Executive Claire Stevens looks ahead to the culture and health conference

Friday 16th November 2018

On Tuesday 20 November, delegates from across the worlds of health, care, arts and culture will gather in Edinburgh for a conference to explore and celebrate how engagement, culture and the arts can, and do, deliver healthier communities and greater wellbeing for individuals.

VHS Chief Executive Claire Stevens looks ahead.

Last December, the Cross Party Group (CPG) on Health Inequalities in the Scottish Parliament, for which we act as secretariat, asked the question: “What can Arts and Culture do for Health Inequalities?”

Spurred on by Margaret O’Connor (Art in Healthcare) and Leonie Bell (now with the Paisley Partnership), VHS organised the CPG discussion as a contribution towards the Scottish Government’s development of a national culture strategy. To our delight and surprise, the meeting attracted all sorts of people from the creative industries, who had no prior involvement in the work of the CPG. From the high level of engagement at the meeting, it was clear that people across Scotland’s arts and creative communities are doing a vast amount to support people's health and well-being across the spectrum of prevention, self-management and recovery. But it was also clear that the cultural dimension of people’s wellbeing is still either ignored or seen as a ‘nice to have’ (but unaffordable) extra by many in the health and social care world, rather than as a vital component of what makes and nurtures us as human beings.

With no strategic relationship between the worlds of culture and health and insufficient dialogue, the potential to enrich, nurture and sustain people’s health and wellbeing was being missed, was the message to the CPG. VHS promised to keep the conversation alive and, in the months since, has convened a series of roundtables bringing people together, culminating in this conference.

Our conferences are always very much about engagement, networking and learning. We want people to feel inspired to look at things through a slightly different lens and make lots of new connections. We’re running a poster competition during the day, with a fabulous Kindle Fire being awarded to the charity whose poster receives the most votes from delegates. We are honoured to have Professor Sir Harry Burns as our keynote speaker, and we are very excited about the performance of Brian Daniels’ play #hellomynameis which dramatizes the story of campaigning geriatrician Dr Kate Granger.

We called the event ‘Get the Picture’ because we hope to generate a sense of energy, and indeed urgency, around the theme of culture and health. Thinking back to our CPG discussion last year, we know that engagement with the arts can influence maternal nutrition, childhood development, shape educational and employment opportunities and tackle chronic distress, as well as enable self-expression, help overcome social isolation and prevent ill-health developing or worsening. But we also recognise that culture is not only about the arts, so the bigger picture that we hope to ‘get’ and explore at conference includes the relationship between health and people’s faiths, food, communities, identity, ethnicity and even sport.

In our response to the Scottish Government's consultation on the draft cultural strategy, we gave examples of the important work being carried out by charities like Art in Hospital, The Teapot Trust, Impact Arts, Alzheimer Scotland and North Edinburgh Arts Centre. The draft strategy’s vision for Scotland mentions health upfront: ‘a place where healthy and distinctive communities flourish culturally’. The draft also includes a welcome section acknowledging the role of culture in nurturing good health although it simply describes things as they are, and says nothing about how these can be improved and built on.  As I see it, the big health reform programmes underway across health and social care integration, primary care and public health all need to have a much more strategic relationship with the world of culture. Just as we’ve been saying we need ‘health in all policies’, so we need ‘culture in all policies’.

Action 3 in the draft strategy says: ‘develop alliances that support social change through culture and promote leadership and joined up working across the culture sector, other sectors, local and national government and communities’. Through the goodwill and concerted efforts of everyone attending the conference I think Get the Picture will be an embodiment of that action. That would be an excellent outcome for the conference as well as a good pointer about the next steps for VHS and our network.