Imagine that you are one of 9.3% of Brazilians (a world record) who, even before the pandemic, suffered from anxiety. After an appointment, you’d have a few recipes in your pocket—including one for attending dating programs at your city’s museum.
If it may sound strange here, this is what has happened since 2018 in Québec, when psychiatrists began to prescribe visits to the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal, as part of the treatment of patients diagnosed with eating disorders to Alzheimer’s, from epilepsy to arrhythmia under the coordination of the Museum’s Art and Health Committee.
Recognition of the impact of the arts on mental health isn’t exactly new. More than 200 years ago, the German physician Johann Christian Reil, who coined the term psychiatry, was described by none other than Goethe, his most famous patient, as a doctor “able to observe people”, not simply medicate them. Defender of humanized treatments for those with a “fragmented personality”, Reil advocated the transforming power of philosophy, music and poetry in treatments.
In Brazil, Osório César – psychiatrist, violinist, art critic, Mario de Andrade’s interlocutor, married to Tarsila do Amaral and political activist – was a pioneer in systematizing the links between psychiatry, art and psychoanalysis. Founder of the Escola Livre de Artes Plásticas, at the Juquery Psychiatric Hospital, in 1924 he launched his first study on the primitive art of the insane, opening the way for another giant of the subject, Nise da Silveira and those who followed her.
Gradually, the law was giving its blessings to the marriage between arts and psychiatry. In 1990, the SUS Law pacified that health involves physical, psychological and social dimensions; in 2001, the Paulo Delgado Law established the defense of integrative, less invasive and community-based treatments.
If the pandemic caused a step backwards – disorganized part of the work in the Psychosocial Care Centers (CAPS) and damaged social contacts in the Living Centers –, maybe we can rely on it to move two forward. The perspective of the world having a legion of covid-19 sequels, traumatized of all kinds and a society in disarray makes room for more innovative approaches and to break the stigma that mental suffering is nitpicking.
This is where the good news comes in. In recent years, the economy has shown that investing in the arts can generate, in addition to intangible benefits, substantial savings for public management. In Denmark, the Vitamins de Cultura program promoted, between 2016 and 2019, the participation of unemployed people with depression, stress or anxiety in cultural activities, ― from heritage education tours to concerts or collective reading ―, from two to three times a week, over two and a half months. Using dopamine as a marker, the program not only helped to overcome the barriers posed by mental suffering, it also proved to be cost-effective. While it costs the public treasury 12 thousand Danish crowns (about 10 thousand reais) per patient, each consultation with a psychologist costs 1000 crowns and a week of absenteeism in the economy represents the loss of 4 thousand crowns for society.
In Australia, the first country to carry the banner of the creative economy, the importance of cultural workers motivated the creation of mental health programs specifically aimed at this group. In the United Kingdom, where the creative economy has become public policy, so have programs to promote mental well-being based on cultural participation, such as the Arts on Prescription, having as facilitators artists from the community itself. Empirical studies show that the program pays for itself with the recovery of between 40% and 70% of participants, depending on the assumptions, although these are still empirical works.
In Brazil, the discussion is as incipient as it is urgent. On the eve of the release of a new global report on mental health, it is unlikely that the percentage of anxious and depressed people in the country has fallen, given the sanitary disaster, the collapse of the economy and the intensification of social inequalities. Developing cultural participation programs for mental well-being in the country can generate benefits from all sides: individual, social, economic and for cultural workers, members of one of the first sectors to suffer from the impact of the pandemic and one of the last to recover from it.
Ana Carla Fonseca won the Jabuti award for Economics of Culture and Sustainable Development (2006) and is a founding partner of Solutions mining