Culture and the arts, from restriction to enhancement: protecting mental health in the Liverpool City Region

As part of the AHRC-funded COVID-19 Care Programme, researchers at the University of Liverpool examined the mental health impact of restricted access to arts and cultural activities as a result of COVID-19 as well as the successes and challenges of alternative modes of provision. They found that access to arts and culture during the pandemic was a ‘crucial lifeline’ for those who were isolated and at risk of mental health issues. Those who engaged in arts and culture frequently during lockdown had significantly higher wellbeing scores than those who engaged in arts and culture ‘never’ or ‘rarely’.

The Liverpool arts scene was found to be hugely adaptable in reaching vulnerable people, quickly pivoting to online delivery. At the onset of the pandemic, as statutory services were shutting down, arts providers proactively sought out those whom they knew to be lonely or in need, offering the very basics for survival where usual care was falling short. Several organisations recognised that there was something unique about their ‘unofficial’ position in the social care structure which enabled them to step in and fill the gap.

The research found that as one of Liverpool’s most important economic and social assets, the arts and culture sector can play a major role in improving mental health outcomes across the city region provided it is properly integrated into public health strategy. Cultural organisations were most effective in sustainably reaching vulnerable, isolated and disadvantaged populations when they worked in close collaboration with social and mental health providers.

A policy recommendation from the programme is therefore that sustainable partnerships between arts and health providers should be supported. Building on successful cross-sectoral cooperation between arts and cultural organisations and regional health and social care providers will facilitate wider provision and maximise the value and reach of these services, as well as producing new opportunities for training care staff to deliver interventions As a first step in this direction, the research team has produced a digital resource, LivCare, of best practice and innovation in arts and mental health in the Liverpool City Region for use by regional stakeholders to support local coordination and scale-up.