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Staying afloat – supporting healthy communities through the arts

Participation in arts programs gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a sense of empowerment and helps them to ‘stay afloat’ – to be able to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

This is the key message of a paper published by Australian Institute of Health and Welfare researchers who examined the evidence of the health benefits to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of participating in arts programs. Arts programs are a cost-effective means of supporting healthy communities, and to reap the benefits, successful programs require consultation with Elders, community involvement in the program design, a holistic long-term approach and a range of affordable activities at appropriate times.

While the effects of arts programs can be empowering and transformative, the effects are often indirect. For example, they can help build healthy relationships between young people and Elders and strengthen links with culture and heritage. They can also act as powerful vehicles for community education around public health issues or help reduce juvenile anti-social behaviours. The researchers uncovered multiple examples of the successful use of music or theatre activities to re-engage students who have disengaged from school and studies. There were also several examples of mental health benefits, including a reduction in self-harming behaviours and emotional healing through the outward expression of negative life experiences. A very successful example of the healing effects can be found on this post.

One of the other major benefits is increased participation in community life. Provided due attention is given to ensuring equal access to and affordability of programs, participation in the arts can increase social inclusion and decrease exclusion, as well as providing opportunities for role modelling and mentoring. Participation in the running of Indigenous arts organisations can open up opportunities for developing leadership and governance capabilities, as well as civic participation more broadly. Importantly, participation in arts programs can contribute to participation in the broader economy – directly through training in specific job skills in the arts or indirectly through the development of cultural tourism opportunities, especially in remote communities.

The research revealed that there were many cultural and social reasons why arts programs support healthy communities and encourage positive behaviours. Participating in the arts is actually enjoyable to most people, it enhances their sense of wellbeing and helps them develop their social and cognitive skills. Community celebrations and local cultural facilities act as community hubs which encourage interactions between the generations, different clans and non-Indigenous populations. The research also highlighted some of the challenges of measuring the long-term impacts of arts programs on individual and community health and wellbeing and the need for more rigorous evaluation methodologies.

For more information on this research, view Supporting healthy communities through arts programs report on the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website.

Arts Queensland

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