In the midst of a pandemic-fuelled mental health crisis, Australians are embracing the healing benefits of arts
If you are among the more than 14 million Australians currently in lockdown, you may find yourself routinely checking the latest streaming releases, or perhaps watching reruns of your favourite 90s sitcom to escape the stresses of pandemic life.
And you are not alone, according to new research published by the University of Melbourne and Western Sydney University that reveals watching film and television is the most popular “creative activity” undertaken by Australians in lockdown.
However, the study’s findings also suggest that listening to a cherished album or belting out a tune in the shower may be better for your mental health than picking up the remote.
“While the most common creative activity was watching films and TV, it ranked very far down the list in terms of effectiveness at making people feel better,” says Dr Frederic Kiernan, a Research Fellow with the University of Melbourne’s Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative (CAWRI), and lead author of the report: The Role of Artistic Creative Activities in Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic in Australia.
Using scales measuring loneliness, depression, and anxiety, participants were asked to rank creative activities by how effectively they improved their mood.
“We found that listening to music, singing and dancing were the top three most effective activities at making people feel better,” says Dr Kiernan.
The results show that “receptive” — or “passive” — creative activities were undertaken more frequently in lockdown because they are easily done from home.
Passive activities account for three of the four most popular, with 80 per cent of respondents watching film and television, 72 per cent listening to music, and 60 per cent reading books or other literature.
Listening to music was ranked the most effective overall for mood improvement.
“Music is a particularly special kind of artistic creative activity. It folds into daily life very easily compared with other activities,” says Dr Kiernan, whose research explores the psychological links between creativity and wellbeing.
While passive activities proved more popular, participants tended to rate active creative activities higher for mood improvement, with the exception of listening to music.
“Listening to music is usually perceived as a receptive activity. You can do it while you’re driving or doing household chores, but you can also do it in a very attentive way. You can sit and listen to a whole album from start to finish and have an immersive listening experience.”
Singing and dancing rank second and third respectively for mood improvement and are considered active, says Dr Kiernan: “because you are involved in making the artwork rather than encountering someone else’s creative work.”
Despite rating highly for mood improvement, dancing was identified by participants as the activity most likely to have ceased during lockdown, followed by rehearsing or performing drama, and singing.
Dr Kiernan says the way Australians have turned to art during the pandemic is unprecedented.
“It’s quite an exceptional circumstance. Particularly during Victoria’s long lockdown, we observed people starting to make art and using artistic creative activities to cope with the conditions of lockdown.”
For many Australians, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant psychological toll.
In June, prior to the current Delta outbreak and associated lockdowns, one in five Australians were reported as experiencing high levels of psychological distress.
This figure was most pronounced among younger Australians aged 18 to 34 years, with nearly one in three (30 per cent) experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress in June, compared with 18 per cent of people aged 35 to 64 years and 10 per cent of people over the age of 65.
In the face of a pandemic-fuelled mental health crisis, Dr Kiernan’s research adds to a growing body of evidence for the benefits of creative activities on health and wellbeing.
Should art be prescribed?
In Brussels, a three-month trial is underway allowing doctors to prescribe museum visits to treat burnout and other stress-induced pathologies exacerbated by the pandemic.
Here in Australia, aged care provider HammondCare has been successfully running an Arts on Prescription program for several years, while a University of Western Australia study published in May found music workshops in a hospital setting consistently improved patients’ mood and reduced self-reported pain.
Supporting the implementation of medical arts interventions is important, but the value of arts engagement extends beyond clinical applications, Dr Kiernan says.
“I think it’s important to not treat the arts like a medicine cabinet that you can just go to and use to treat illness.
“The reasons why art is good for people also has to do with its capacity to communicate, to assert individual and collective identities, to help us think, and process things.
“The arts actually are a way of being in the world.”
Why does creativity make us feel good?
Professor Carol Brown, Head of Dance at the Victorian College of the Arts, echoes Dr Kiernan’s view on the broader value of arts for promoting health.
“Expressive arts give us access to a range of modalities of being in the body. You can explore a full range of emotions that maybe we don’t have access to in our day-to-day lives,” says Professor Brown.
In collaboration with the Computational Psychiatry Lab at the University of Melbourne, Professor Brown is working on an experiential research project that melds artistic and neuroscientific concepts to explore how dance and music enhance wellbeing.
The project, Mental Dance, maps dancers’ movements using wearable sensors to test “feeling-tones” (sensory experiences in the body) and explore how music and dance interact to create different psychosomatic states.
“When we dance together, we’re involved in this process called entrainment. There’s a kind of expanded consciousness that comes from that. We sense each other’s breath and movement, we move rhythmically together and find meaning together,” says Professor Brown.
Lockdowns and social distancing measures have posed significant challenges to many forms of creative participation, particularly those that rely on physical synchronicity or connection with others.
“We can’t be physically together right now, but we can emotionally connect online. And that’s enabling us to keep going, to rehearse together, and sustain ourselves during this time of limited access to each other.”
To adapt to digital forms of creative engagement, we need to change our perception, says Professor Brown.
“There is a bigger piece of work in terms of digital adaptation, to understand how can we create the same sort of feeling states or the same pleasure in dancing remotely.”
Pandemic-safe creative activities
For Melbourne-based ballet dancer and lawyer Zara Lim, engaging creatively online has had unexpected benefits.
“Ballet can seem intimidating to outsiders, but doing it on Zoom is a really safe way to learn because you don’t need to be self-conscious,” says Lim, who trained full-time at the Australian Ballet School and has been teaching adult ballet classes online during lockdown.
“I’m teaching complete beginners purely for enjoyment. I teach them proper technique, but everything else is really casual. It’s not as scary and I think people really appreciate that.”
With large parts of the country still in lockdown, participation in the arts is limited, as theatres and galleries remain closed and creative classes are relegated online.
Lim says engaging with dance online is not just an escape from the dreariness of lockdown but gives her students structured goals to work towards.
“Ballet is very technical and my students are getting really into it and wanting to practice. It’s stimulating their minds as well because there are so many little details just to do one step.”
For Lim, dance is meditative.
“When you’re dancing, you’re just focusing on what you’re doing, and not thinking about anything else. It’s a beautiful escape from everything going on.”