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November 28, 2013
by Christie Hunter

The Impact of the Arts on Health

November 28, 2013 04:55 by Christie Hunter  [About the Author]

She took his wrinkled hand in hers. Surprisingly, he started tapping rhythmically on her hand. Frustrated, she wasn’t sure what he wanted. He had deteriorated much in recent days, dementia robbing him of his memories. In fact, she wasn’t sure if he knew who she was at all. “I love you, a bushel and a peck…”, he started singing to her. She hesitated, confused. He insisted, repeating the phrase. Finally she understood. He wanted to sing his favorite song, so they sang the entire song together. He knew all the lyrics.

The arts - visual, physical and aural  - help us to understand and express the complexities of human nature. Art has long been a valuable instrument in helping people who are suffering emotional or physical pain to cope and to heal. The increased use of the arts in the field of healthcare is becoming an invaluable tool for aiding healthcare workers to construct better care for patients. The participatory nature of the arts allows for the breaking down of barriers across a wide array of boundaries, whether they be social, mental or physical, allowing for better access to patients who might otherwise be inaccessible. [1] The arts are where health and social circumstances intersect, creating an equal playing field for patients and healthcare providers alike to heal and be healed. [2]

November is Arts in Health Month. As if you needed yet another reason to support the arts in your community, the benefits of the arts in the field of healthcare is immeasurably important.


The most useful tool caregivers have in their arsenal of therapy in the field of healthcare is music. Music can assist with mental disorders, eating and sleeping problems, memory loss, and the reduction of stress, anxiety and fatigue levels. Not only does music relieve stress in patients but in health care providers as well.

Exposure to live music has greater benefits than exposure to recorded music. Patients receiving chemotherapy reported lowered anxiety levels by 32% and depression levels by 31% when exposed to live music. [3] Live music played to pregnant mothers showed a reduction in pulse rates, an increase of the heart rates of the fetus and reduced stress and depression in the postnatal ward. [4]

The use of music with Alzheimer’s patients is exceptionally beneficial, as they do not lose their musical abilities with the disease. [5] Pre-selected music chosen by the patient reduces stress level even further, suggesting that music that is familiar has even greater benefits. Singing comforts dementia patients and increases verbal communication in those who are suffering from memory loss because they react well to the association of the verbal with the musical in familiar songs. [5]


Physical exercise has long been shown to be beneficial to the body and mind and is often suggested for those suffering from depression and anxiety, as well as those who need to fight diabetes or heart disease. [5] Dance is an excellent form of physical exercise, as well as provides people suffering from dementia an excellent opportunity to socialize, which increases brain function. [4]

Theater and Drama

Therapeutic drama has been shown to have a positive impact on those who suffer from communication and social difficulties, such as mental health issues or dementia. Disappearing into another character provides a safety net for patients to delve into their own world and express themselves as someone else. Additionally, the use of drama is helpful for caregivers and nurses, as role playing teaches them to better understand the needs of their patient. [5]

Reading, writing and literature

Creative writing has long been used to promote mental well-being, whether it be to keep track of responses to treatment or simply just to provide an outlet for emotions. In fact, patients suffering from a wide variety of illnesses from depression to cancer are often encouraged to keep a journal of their feelings and experiences. Writing allows people to organize their thoughts, which has therapeutic value in that it gives control back to the person of their inner world. Mentally ill patients in particular benefit from writing because it allows their doctors and caregivers an insight into their minds and how their world works. [5]

Visual arts

The visual arts can be used as a very powerful tool in healthcare in a few ways. On the one hand, it can be a great form of self-expression by patients, aiding in the healing process. Patients who were exposed to visual arts going through chemotherapy reported a 20% reduction in anxiety and a 34% reduction in depression levels. [3] When doctors and therapists are limited by verbal communications in assisting patients, visual art can be a great form of communication and way of diagnosing a patient.

Additionally, art can be so powerful a tool that in areas where behavior needs to be controlled, such as preventing dementia patients from wandering off. Art that elicits a fear response, such as a scary mural, can keep patients contained to a certain area without the use of restraints. [5]

Because art has the potential to illicit powerful reactions, and because the nature of how the brain responds to art is not yet entirely understood, the use of art in the field of healthcare ought to be executed with caution, as some art may cause injury or unwanted psychological effects. [4] However the benefits of including the arts in the healing process far outweigh any potential problems, making arts in health a very exciting development in the area of healthcare.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ [1] [“Community-Based Arts For Health: A Literature Review”, Jane South.

2004. ]

[2] [“Arts for health: still searching for the Holy Grail”, C Hamilton, S Hinks, M Petticrew. 2003]

[3] [“The Healing Environment: Without and Within”, Deborah Kirklin (Editor), Ruth Richardson (Editor) 2003]

[4] [“The state of arts and health in England”, Stephen Clift, Paul M. Camic, Brian Chapman,

Gavin Clayton, Norma Daykin, Guy Eades, Clive Parkinson, Jenny Secker, Theo Stickley, Mike White. 2008]

[5] [“Arts in health: a review of the medical literature Dr Rosalia Lelchuk Staricof 2011]

About the Author

Christie Hunter

Christie Hunter is registered clinical counselor in British Columbia and co-founder of Theravive. She is a certified management accountant. She has a masters of arts in counseling psychology from Liberty University with specialty in marriage and family and a post-graduate specialty in trauma resolution. In 2007 she started Theravive with her husband in order to help make mental health care easily attainable and nonthreatening. She has a passion for gifted children and their education. You can reach Christie at 360-350-8627 or write her at christie - at -

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