The healing power of creativity

The diverse nature of the UK population has gone hand in hand with an ever-changing representation of its people. But to what extent have these identities been created by those who truly understand the complexities of each community? Can these new identities be harmful? And how can cultural activities and art help to bridge the gap between policy and people?

Dr Qulsom Fazil, a social/cultural psychologist in the College of Medical and Dental Sciences, believes that community-based projects that embrace art and culture could be the key to unlocking more accurate representations of people, and in doing so, better healthcare provision for all.

“I spoke to an elderly man during a poetry session recently. He told me ‘We came as migrant workers, and it’s now hard for us to think of ourselves as anything other than migrant workers. It’s not easy to think in an artistic way – though we used to recite poetry every day as children’.”

“It’s common for us to come across people who feel as though their identity has been bestowed upon them from the outside. The sense of disconnection that people feel, as a citizen, is very real. The needs of each community are different - but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the policy documents.

“Art can bring people together and tackle that sense of isolation. We want to develop new understandings of our communities that will challenge the outdated models that inform our current policies and health services.”

The Representing Communities Hodgehill case study with the Pakistani community of Birmingham has shown there to be very little, or in some cases non-existent, support for cultural activity. The problem is more than just an issue of resources and funding however, but about the need to develop smarter and more relevant interventions that can improve health and wellbeing in individuals and populations. .

“Negative perceptions of the Pakistani community are increasingly prevalent in the post-9/11 landscape,’ says Dr Fazil. ‘ My concern is that these views are filtering into all walks of life, and informing policy that can actually be harmful to people.

“If you look at health as a standalone topic; diabetes and tuberculosis are often shown as being an ‘epidemic’ within this community , but you rarely see the more positive messages about the relative absence of certain cancers.

“You have to question what seeing these less favourable representations on a day-to-day basis might mean for you, your sense of self and your wellbeing as a whole.

“Health is about so much more than data and figures; it has to be about community and people. Numbers can be very useful but they have restrictions, and need supporting with qualitative investigations that acknowledge and utilise the cultural differences between community groups to paint a more realistic picture of the UK population as a whole.”

As well as Dr Fazil, the Hodge Hill case study team comprises Dr Clare Barker, Lecturer in English at the University of Leeds, who is working on the significance of literary representations of the Pakistani heritage community, and Dr Joanna Skelt, Research Associate in Community and Participatory Arts and former City of Birmingham Poet laureate 2013-2014. This study in particular has embraced a range of traditional activities to help different generations to open up about their experiences.

Poetry workshops have had the benefit of encouraging people to tell their story and make new connections within their community. Meanwhile, tapestry lessons are used to form tangible art that can help explain the realities of life within the community – a thought-provoking means of engaging healthcare professionals and influencing policy makers.

“If you think about when you go to a museum, or see a show, you take something away with you. You internalise the message and develop a greater understanding. Perhaps we overlook the importance of culture as a means of expressing identity and as a catalyst in developing identities.

“Our identity matters as it impacts upon how we go about our day-to-day lives. Shouldn’t we all have the chance to inform how we are represented?”

Representing communities: Developing the creative power of people to improve their health and wellbeing’ is funded as part of Connected Communities, a cross-Council programme led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) .