Maria Hilberth is the manager of primary healthcare in Mönsterås in south-eastern Sweden where a clinic now prescribes culture to patients suffering from stress, depression and other mental illnesses. She says:
“In this project, we would like to achieve health by supplementing traditional healthcare with an offer of cultural activities: culture by prescription.”
Hilberth adds that it is good for healthcare services to have a “wide agenda” when it comes to treating mental illnesses.
So far, nurses at the Mönsterås lifestyle clinic have handed out free culture passes to 15 patients. The idea is to help them avoid social isolation, and according to Emma Gustavsson, manager of the Culture by Prescription project in Mönsterås, the arts have the power to heal.
“We want to prove that culture has health-promoting effects,” says Gustavsson. “Researchers from all over the world tell us that your stress levels go down when you participate, both passively and actively, in culture. The research also tells us that you become a happier and more relaxed person by taking part in cultural activities.”
Mönsterås is not the only Swedish town that has run Culture by Prescription projects. There have been similar initiatives around the country after two pilot projects were initiated at the government level – by the Department of Culture and the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.
However, not everyone is fully convinced about the benefits of the initiative. David Eberhard, a psychiatrist and author, says he is only cautiously optimistic about the idea that offering patients a free culture pass could be the key to helping them avoid social isolation.
“I think it’s an OK idea in the sense that anything you do that breaks your passive lifestyle is OK, but I’d say it’s even better to exercise or meet friends,” says Eberhard.
It is still early days for the Mönsterås project. It has not been evaluated yet, but the patients' free-of-charge culture passes are valid for a year and can be used at cinemas and theatres, for instance. Eberhard believes this may not be the best use of public funds, especially since many of these cultural activities only require passive engagement, he says.
“I’m skeptical about using public funds for this. I think there are better ways of treating mental illness than going to the movies or to the theatre or a museum for free. You should focus on social things and on exercise. There is better evidence for that,” claims Eberhard.
Moreover, perhaps the idea that people engage in the arts to feel good puts unfair expectations on artists? After all, artists may also want to create work that disrupts our worldviews, provokes existential dilemmas or just makes us sad.
Those kinds of effects are not what the Culture by Prescription project is aiming for, but Hilberth is not worried about patients being negatively affected by the cultural activities on offer in her town.
“My experience about the cultural range in Mönsterås tells me there isn’t anything that could create harm…. I don’t think the culture here makes people feel bad, I think they feel good,” Hilberth insists.