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Simple things, big impact: Creativity and peer support in improving health and wellbeing

“Having been on 21 tablets a day for nearly 25 years, I knew this was my life. I asked the psychiatrist if I would ever be medication-free and he said ‘no’. But in 2012 I started an ‘art for wellbeing’ class. This was the best thing that had ever happened to me. In two-and-a-half years my life has been totally transformed.”

These are the words of Debs Taylor, an artist who struggled with mental health problems for most of her life, leaving her house-bound and unable to work. The creativity and social support she discovered in an art class organised by Creative Minds – a Yorkshire-based initiative that promotes the use of creative activities to improve health and wellbeing – helped give her a new sense of purpose and in the process turned her life around.

Today, Debs works as a Peer Project Support Officer for the initiative, helping others find their path to better mental health using her insight as a service user. Creative Minds is embedded in South West Yorkshire NHS Foundation Trust, and supports voluntary organisations and community groups to deliver creative activities to service users, their carers and staff. Since launching in November 2011, they have helped deliver over 200 projects benefiting over 4,000 people. And recently, Health Foundation and Q colleagues had the privilege of hearing about their work when Debs, along with her colleague Phil Walters, came to speak about how the initiative works and the impact it has on people’s lives.

Creative Minds is based on a simple principle: Creative activities can have a big impact on a person’s wellbeing – increasing self-esteem so they feel confident to try new things, developing social skills and providing a sense of purpose. And these things, in turn, can be good for our health (See ‘Art of being mentally healthy’ study in the related links).

Here, ‘creativity’ comes in various forms – dancing, knitting, gardening, and many more. The activities provide an opportunity for people to enjoy themselves and to escape from the worries of life, be that illness, work stress or other life problems. There is no clinical therapeutic agenda – the idea is that participating in these activities is therapeutic in itself. (Over the years, the Health Foundation has funded a number of innovative projects based on the same principle that uses group activities such as yoga and singing to tackle isolation and anxiety, and, in the process, reduce exacerbations and hospital admissions.)

One of the most valuable things participants gain from being involved in group activities of this kind is the support and relationships they build with their peers. Peer support involves people with shared experiences, characteristics and circumstances providing mutual support to one another and is increasingly seen as an important and effective way of supporting people to improve their health and wellbeing. In Debs’ role as a Peer Project Support Officer, she supports people to achieve more than they are led to believe than can, as well as making sure that their voices are heard by the healthcare system.

Initiatives like this are a welcome recognition not only that our health is determined largely by factors outside of the healthcare system but also that it can be improved by the assets we have around us in our communities. That is why Creative Minds was chosen as one of a number of exemplars to be part of Realising the Value which explored effective approaches to enable people to take an active role in their own health and care. The programme also looked at the value of peer support by working with Positively UK, a charity providing peer-led support to people living with HIV.

Debs and Phil are also working with the Q Improvement Lab which brings people together from across the UK to work on complex challenges facing health and care. Starting in April 2017, over a 12 month period the first Lab will explore the challenge of what it would take for effective peer support to be available to everyone who wants it, to help manage their long-term health and wellbeing needs.

The Lab will draw on experience and expertise from initiatives such as Creative Minds and generate a whole system view of the challenge to understand how we can make visible and scale-up success stories.

If successful, the Lab approach offers an alternative way of understanding and solving complex health and care challenges. In terms of peer support, Debs’ story tells us is that making this kind of support available for more people across the country could have a transformative effect on people’s health and wellbeing.

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