The power to heal: new WHO report shows how art can help fight NCDs

Art has long been recognized for enriching our lives, but it can also play a powerful role in our health. In recent years, a growing body of research suggests that arts-based interventions can help fight non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – from cardiovascular disease to cancer. A new WHO/Europe report, based on the ‘Learning from the Arts’ conference held in Budapest, suggests how the arts can be integrated into health systems to complement the treatment and prevention of NCDs.

“It’s as if the chemotherapy disappeared for that period”

During a conference in Budapest held in December 2022, Christopher Bailey, Director of Arts and Health at WHO, shared his experience in the fight against obesity and cancer. Christopher recalled how the stories he shared on his personal blog and the plays he wrote for the theater helped him overcome his battle with cancer, recover from chemotherapy and rethink the way he understands what it is to be healthy.

“I found that when I was working on stage working with the actors, I had a deep sense of well-being,” Christopher said during his speech. “I could walk, I could hold things, I could speak eloquently. It’s as if the chemotherapy disappeared during that period of rehearsals and performances. When I got home and took off my shoes and socks, they would be soaked in blood. I couldn’t speak anymore, it was only temporary, but at that moment of the performance – I was fine.

“Art is not healing – it doesn’t cure cancer,” he continued. “But art can heal.” That’s different. They create a sense of deep personal meaning that makes your life beautiful, no matter the circumstances.”

Art can complement medicine

A growing body of evidence shows that art can be used as an effective adjunct to medical treatment and healing. They are non-invasive and low-risk.

WHO/Europe explores the potential of art as a complement to the prevention and treatment of NCDs – the biggest health threat in the WHO European Region, a region where cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer and other non-communicable diseases account for 90% of all deaths.

“This report provides real-world examples of different approaches that the arts and health field can apply to NCD prevention, and creates momentum for greater collaboration.” I hope that our report will promote the value of art and health projects across the Region and, most importantly, advance their implementation in the real world, especially at the policy level,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, WHO/Europe Regional Adviser on Nutrition, Obesity and physical activity.

The sound of healing

There are limitless ways to bring art into our lives – and the same is true for art as it is for health interventions.

A new WHO report highlights several inspiring arts and health projects that are helping to fight NCDs and reduce associated risks in countries across the region.

For example, the Madrid Salud project engages people from vulnerable social groups from the Spanish capital to participate in artistic events that simultaneously raise awareness of health issues related to NCDs: from the risks of an unhealthy diet to the benefits of an active lifestyle. In Hungary, patients, after a respiratory illness, can choose to join the choir as part of a rehabilitation course. In the Russian city of Vologda, a project by the National Research Center for Preventive Medicine is reshaping fairy tales and other children’s stories to improve health literacy in schools.

A bridge between culture and health

“We see that there has been a change of attitude in the health community. A few years ago, the discussion developed around the need for more evidence. There is now recognition that the arts do indeed improve health and well-being,” said Nils Fietje, Technical Officer in the Department of Behavioral and Cultural Insights at WHO/Europe.

Today, health systems are ready to take advantage of the potential of artistic interventions. They are beginning to realize that they can use so-called social prescribing to recommend specific and evidence-based art therapies to patients that can be inclusive, bring together young and old, and create a bridge between culture and health that can enrich the lives of all people.

“If we can bring art and health together, it can create a stronger connection with the potential to improve well-being and foster a healthier environment for all,” said Dr Gauden Galea, WHO/European Strategic Advisor to the Regional Director, Special Initiative on NCDs and Innovation (SNI ).

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