Professor Woody Caan is a professorial fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and editor of the Journal of Public Mental Health. Earlier this year, Professor Caan kindly invited me to contribute an article to the journal which, I'm delighted to say, is published in this month's issue (Gillam, 2018a). I ended up giving my article the rather wordy title: Enhancing public mental health and wellbeing through creative arts participation. In it, I discuss how, as a mental health nurse with a lifelong interest in creativity and the creative arts I have, for many years now, explored creative approaches to fostering wellbeing. While my main professional focus has been on the wellbeing of the users and providers of mental health services, this has been in the context of an underlying assumption that the mental health and wellbeing of the wider community can also be enhanced through creative activity.
One of the areas of participatory arts on which the article focuses is my work in community music with an initiative called the Music Workshop Project. As I explain in the article: "in my most recent book, I wrote elegiacally about the Music Workshop Project, believing my days of therapeutic music-making were over. Serendipitously, however, I have more recently been invited by Dudley MIND (a local West Midlands branch of the Mental Health charity) to facilitate a series of music workshop sessions for wellbeing."
I go on to describe a shift in my attitude to this kind of work: "Although I remain a registered mental health nurse, I approach these sessions as participatory arts activities which I facilitate as a musician rather than as a nurse. In this context, I am a musical group leader or, as McNiff (2004) might more poetically describe it, the 'keeper' or 'caretaker' of the 'studio' or creative space. I have found it helpful, in being clear about my role, to identify with McNiff's view that: "As a 'keeper' or 'caretaker' of the studio, my primary function is to kindle the soul of the place, to maintain its vitality and its ability to engage people in highly individual ways..." (p.20). This is not how mental health nurses would typically describe their function though I would argue that, if nurses are to be truly concerned with the wellbeing of society (and not just the health of mental health service users) then they do need to be skilled at facilitating flourishing (Gillam, 2018b.)"
At the end of November, I ran one of these sessions for Dudley MIND. All the participants seemed to enjoy the mixture of improvised extended 'jams' and on-the-hoof, ad-libbed renditions of half-remembered pop songs. We even did a few Christmas tunes, knowing that we would not be meeting again until after the festive season. After the session had ended, I asked a first-time participant how he found the group.
"Yes, it was alright that was," he said. "I've been to some of the other activities - quizzes and things - but I can't always think what to say quick enough. But with this music group, that doesn't matter. I think I'll come again."
Gillam, T. (2018a). Enhancing public mental health and wellbeing through creative arts participation. Journal of Public Mental Health 17 (4), 148-156.
Gillam, T. (2018b). Creativity, wellbeing and mental health practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
McNiff, S. (2004). Art heals: How creativity cures the soul. Boston, Mass.: Shambala Publications.