The ‘S’ Word: can the arts reduce mental health stigma?

In the UK – despite much progress since the abolition of large psychiatric hospitals and a significant increase in care in the community – stigma surrounding mental health issues is still an incredibly prominent issue. The Mental Health Foundation notes that “people with mental health problems say that the social stigma attached to mental ill health and the discrimination they experience can make their difficulties worse and make it harder to recover.” Existing stigma can be exacerbated by the media’s biased and often hyperbolized coverage of people with mental health issues, which often paints a portrait of dangerous criminals who should be avoided. Considering one in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives, this is a very key issue.


The research

Many organisations and researchers have looked into the impact the arts can have on reducing stigma, with predominantly positive findings and results. Two researchers from the University of Strathclyde’s School of Applied Social Sciences – Lee Knifton and Neil Quinn – have conducted research into the impact of the arts on mental health stigma. They started with a week-long mental health arts and film festival in Glasgow and Lanarkshire in 2007, which has since developed into a national programme in numerous locations in Scotland. The learning from their accompanying research has continually shaped the festival, and they have found that “arts events reduce stigma amongst audiences and media by increasing positive beliefs rather than simply reducing negative ones.”

In ‘Using theatre to address mental illness stigma: a knowledge translation study in bipolar disorder’ (2014), E. Michalak et al. noted that “Emerging evidence… indicates that an effective multifaceted strategy to prevent and reduce mental illness stigma would include creative arts and contact-based approaches.”[Michalak et al. 2014]. The paper concluded that:

“The power of arts-based approaches, which are consonant with the current emphasis on narrative-based medicine, may lie in their potential to reach and speak to an audience that may not be responsive to conventional methods for addressing stigma and may represent a yet-to-be fully tapped mechanism for change.” [Michalak et al 2014].

The arts can be – and have been – used in a myriad of ways in an attempt to reduce stigma. For example, in 2013, Time to Change commissioned two British artists to create ‘get well soon’ cards to be sent to people experiencing mental health issues. This campaign was a result of findings that showed 79% of the public would consider sending a card to someone experiencing a physical health problem, but only 50% would consider sending one to someone experiencing a mental health problem.


Unique characteristics

I want to move away slightly from the statistics, and think about characteristics innate to the arts that might enable them to be key players in reducing stigma and discrimination towards – well anyone – but let’s talk about them in relation to mental health. The arts are unique in their universal accessibility – from Hollywood blockbuster films, to visual arts exhibitions and popular music, making them a vital resource to be tapped into. They offer a channel through which real, down-to-earth stories about human experience of mental health issues can be conveyed to the general public.

The arts have long been known for their ability to provide the artist with a voice, and this voice can be used for powerful results. A key form of communication, the arts are cross-cultural, cross-language, and cross-class. They can represent the things that cannot be put into words, or conveyed through language.

MECCA (Multi-Ethnic Collaborative of Community Agencies) have run a Stigma Reduction through the Arts project, ultimately focusing on “reducing behavioral and mental health disparities through reducing the associated stigma surrounding mental illness” by creating specialist workshops that utilised educational documentaries, collaborative expression, and exhibitions. The notes on the project mention that:

“Artistic expression of thoughts, emotions, and attitudes through a variety of mediums provides the general public with the opportunity to view mental health issues through a consumer perspective in an effort to counteract stereotypes, dispel prejudice, discrimination, and negative attitudes contributing to the stigma.”


Providing a different ‘label’

Not only is art a great way to communicate different – and often difficult – messages, it also gives its maker a new ‘label.’ Now, I’m certainly no advocate for labels, but labelling is something we as humans innately do. We like to group things together so we can use our existing knowledge to make sense of new information.

A key example here is the annual Koestler Trust exhibition held at the Southbank Centre in London every autumn. The exhibition showcases work by people in prison, secure patients, and detainees. Although not focusing on mental health, it is still a prime example of reducing stigma using the arts. In this case, stigma surrounding those who are or who have been in prison or detained in a secure setting. The exhibition, situated as it is in a huge mainstream arts centre, removes the label ‘offender’ or ‘prisoner’ from the creator, instead presenting them to the world as an ‘artist’ or ‘writer.’

As multi-faceted human beings, art exhibitions and events can highlight another side of us. They can show the world what we’re really good at, or what we’re really passionate about. They are also really good at compressing more than one emotion, sentiment, or message into one concise image – or song, or poem.

By looking at just one painting, you might be able to see and understand very quickly how someone is feeling and why they might be experiencing these feelings. If we were to go about finding this out through conversation, it could take a while – not to mention an awful lot of trust-building, and in reality, we might give up after not too long.

It would be good to hear whether you think the arts are key for reducing stigma surrounding mental health – and if so, why are they? Post in the comments below if you have any thoughts!



Erin E Michalak et al., ‘Using theatre to address mental illness stigma: a knowledge translation study in bipolar disorder,’ International Journal of Bipolar Disorders, 2014, 2:1. Available online:


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