Using art to heal

June 30, 2015 — Leave a comment

Health factors2Because Health is Life, our lifestyles are just as important to our health as going to the doctor or taking our medicines. In a paper published June 30, 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a study looking at survey data found that half the heart disease deaths in the US from 2009-2010 were caused by 5 factors all of which can be modified through healthy behavior: smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. But many of these behaviors are difficult to change and are influenced by our families, our culture and our community.

This picture shows that clinical care by doctors and hospitals accounts for only about 20% of health outcomes. The picture comes from a project called County Health Rankings developed by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) that looks at health by county in the US. Addressing factors like cigarette smoking, income, education, employment, housing and clear air can help make communities healthier places to live.

We need to find ways to build healthier communities and the arts may be one way to accomplish this.

In a fascinating podcast, Andres Marquez-Lara talks about an organization he founded called the Promethean Community. His work is based on the idea that we are all artists since creativity is the act of creating. He also believes that our culture lies in the stories we tell (our personal narratives) and that we remember things better when we experience them. He develops programs that bring communities together to solve their own problems using the arts, especially the performing arts.

He believes that personal connection is very important and that disconnection is a silent killer. He also believes that the most innovative and lasting solutions to problems come from the people most affected by them.

He develops workshops that involve community members in improvisations to act out their problems. Working together to create the performance helps build connection and trust. By acting out their problems and potential solutions, these workshops help communities to self-organize, innovate and address their health challenges head-on. Obviously, some people will be more comfortable with improvisation than others. So he trains everyone in advance so they can participate in a way that feels right for them.

In one of his projects, he worked with a non-profit organization and a housing community in Washington, DC to help them gain a better understanding of some of the stigmas of mental illness. He got together community residents, advocates and health professionals to act out a negative situation they had encountered related to dealing with people who are mentally ill. Then he had the audience members and the participants in the improv change the scene to produce a different outcome. The participants in the workshop felt more connected to each other and also developed practical solutions to their problems which they felt empowered to implement.

Marquez-Lara also believes that artists from within a particular community can help others explore pain and conflict within the community and develop their own solutions. Perhaps art and artists will prove to be effective community healers.

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