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City Life: Mississauga Arts Council: Health Through the Arts

Published on on March 11, 2024. Article by Rick Muller.

Mississauga Arts Council presents a two-year Pilot ArtsCare Social Prescription Program to benefit mental health.

Whether we admit it or not or even realize it, we have all incorporated calming strategies into our daily lives to deal with the sometimes-frenetic pace of our obligations, activities or life patterns. Some of us curl up with a good book or listen to classical music or white noise apps on our phones. Others cook or find that a rigorous physical workout does the trick, and walking the dog or even shamelessly binge-watching an admittedly silly television series can calm the nerves and centre us for the challenges ahead – all are strategies that might personally work for us and our mental health. As John Lennon once sang, “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right, it’s all right.”

You may notice that none of these strategies involve medications or pharmaceuticals. That’s the idea behind the Mississauga Arts Council’s new two- year Pilot ArtsCare Social Prescription program, designed to let participants enjoy creative experiences and to unleash the power of the arts to improve our mental health.

In late November last year, the Mississauga Arts Council (MAC) presented the proposal for a Pilot ArtsCare Social Prescription Program written by art psychotherapist Haley Toll to the Honourable Michael Tibollo, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. This pilot program is the next step in furthering MAC’s ArtsCare initiatives that make creative experiences and activities available to residents as a non-pharmacological way to improve mental health. The goal is to enhance individual and community health and well-being and foster resilient, sustainable, creative community support and health services for diverse populations. ArtsCare aims to reduce public health costs by implementing preventive measures and innovative services that will have long-term impacts, improving access to care and focusing on a patient’s natural strengths, at a time when many in our society are struggling with mental health challenges.

“There has never been a time when new mental health services were needed more,” according to the Ontario Provincial Mental Health Support Report released in February 2021. Extensive research has shown the power of the arts and other creative experiences to enhance mental health strategies. In his New York Times article of February 3, 2024, titled “Art Can Make Us All Better People”, David Brooks wrote, “Paintings, poems, novels and music help multiply and refine the models we use to perceive and construct reality. By attending to great perceivers,” that is, artists, “we can more subtly understand what is going on around us and be better at expressing what we see and feel.”

“In Mississauga, a strained public health system has left many children, youth and adults dealing with mental health crises without adequate support,” says Toll, former president of the Canadian Art Therapy Association. “Recognizing the need for innovative solutions, The Mississauga Arts Council and Mass Culture initiated a collaborative project to design an arts prescription model,” she explains, finding research through a datathon and connecting leading professionals in the field of arts in health through focus groups and a conference. Called “ArtsCare,” MAC’s new model is a social prescription program for creative therapies designed to provide a spectrum of care to meet the diverse needs of people experiencing isolation, mental health challenges and various forms of distress. The two-year comprehensive program, introduced initially in Mississauga, has the potential to expand across Ontario. ArtsCare is simple in its approach yet may be groundbreaking in improving mental health and well-being through the power of arts and creative experiences. We’re all aware of the various concerts, community events and festivals, painting exhibitions and other cultural activities that may be held in our neighbourhoods throughout the year. The ArtsCare prescription is to incorporate these into your daily life and experience creative events in addition to your daily jog or other strategies that work for you. The message is clear: don’t stop what you’re already doing – simply add the arts to the equation and reap the powerful added benefits.

“If you knew of a low-cost, proven effective therapy for a multitude of mental health obstacles, a solution without side effects that was guaranteed to make participants feel better, wouldn’t you seek to make it widely accessible?” says Mike Douglas, executive director of MAC. “The ArtsCare Program will help make people feel better while delivering health-care savings.”

“In a study based on a 2016 Statistics Canada General Social Survey, the Canada Council for the Arts found that 52 per cent of Canadians who participated in 15 arts, cultural and heritage activities were more likely to report very good or excellent mental health than non- attendees and participants,” says Associate Minister Tibollo. “This study looked at activities such as live music, art galleries, reading books, art and culture festivals, theatre and comedy shows.”

As the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe observed in a September 2019 report, “arts interventions are often low-risk, highly cost-effective, integrated and holistic treatment options for complex health challenges to which there are no current solutions.”

Whether it’s yoga or tai chi, boxing, biking, long-distance swimming or cross- country skiing, all are healthy endeavours for the body, mind and soul. You should consider adding the calm of painting, music, reading or even attending art and music festivals, live theatre or comedy shows – all are proven to be effective strategies to add to your personal tool boxes, strategies to enhance your personal health and well-being. The MAC ArtsCare Social Prescription Program is a worthy initiative for improving your mental health while enjoying yourself at the same time.