An artist, healthcare worker, mental health service user and academic walk into a room…
In fact, on the 12th of October this eclectic mix of individuals did actually come together to create an incredibly dynamic and engaging discussion on how to evaluate the impact of arts-based interventions in mental health facilities. Inviting participants from such varied backgrounds was a priority for Hospital Rooms, a mental health charity that believes in the power of arts to instil value, dignity and well-being in people. Hospital Rooms aims to enable people using mental health services to access art, disrupting the barriers that limit access to art and culture for people using mental health services. This unique approach to wellbeing requires a unique approach to evaluation: how can the benefits of art in an often-vulnerable group of service users be rigorously evaluated? No one discipline has the answer. Hospital Rooms Co-founders Niamh White and Tim A. Shaw had the foresight to see the value in including varied and unique perspectives on how exactly to go about measuring the impact of their project. The cross-disciplinary discourse proved to be an essential first step to creating novel and holistic evaluation approach.
Woven throughout our discussions was the importance of quality. We began with the premise that Hospital Rooms upholds the importance of quality artwork, and quickly moved to questions of what represents ‘quality’ in art, and quality of experience for those engaging with art, including mental health service users. Next, we grappled with the challenges of poor quality ‘tick-box’ evaluations which risk becoming demeaning, meaningless, and repetitive. Ultimately, from perspectives of the artists, the service users, the healthcare staff, and the evaluators, the concept of quality must underpin all our approaches, so that service users feel emboldened, empowered, respected and a sense of quality of life. Beyond the biomedical definition of health, we strive for wellbeing.
So, how do we get there? There seems to be many names for this process. ‘Co-creation’ is the term used by artists at Hospital Rooms, referring to how art is created by both the service user and the artist. ‘Participatory Research’ was the term used by academics, alluding to how participation of research subjects is critical to the research process. Ultimately, there was a consensus that everyone needs to band together, to guide the art itself, and also to have a say in the evaluation of how art impacts their lives. In other words, mental health service users need to be as much a part of the creation and evaluation process as everyone else.
This co-production process may be one way to ensure the sustainability of the work that Hospital Rooms does – which was also discussed. In an era of economic rationalism, it is critical to demonstrate impact to funders results to receive further funding for other projects. Quantitative and economic measures are important for funding and to provide a numerical measure of progress for new donors. However, qualitative research adds a much more personal touch to the work that is carried out and could also be used to show donors the progress made. As a result, mixed methods approaches seem the best way forward as they incorporate the effect of statistics with the individuality of narratives. When carrying out mixed methods evaluations of arts projects, a flexible and inclusive framework was agreed as the best way forward. A rigid framework does not allow for unplanned outcomes, which can certainly be expected when combining the arts with science in a mental health space.
The group meeting was the first step in tackling a difficult problem: how do we bring a rigorous, eloquent and inclusive approach to making explicit all the implicits of art and wellbeing? Not everyone likes art or has a positive response to it, but that’s not what it’s all about. Art can generate emotions, it can generate dialogue and conversations, it can break down barriers for those with mental health issues. Art can bring about change, the challenge is demonstrating how and in what ways.