Arts and Mental Health Case Study: The Hera Project (Healing, Expressive and Recovery Arts)
The Hera Project is an artist-led workshop programme for patients in NHS Primary Care in Brighton & Hove. Participants have a wide range of mental health concerns, and many people also live with physical health problems. We offer creative activities that people might find interesting, engaging and enjoyable.
Hera was incorporated into a new charity in 2016 – the Robin Hood Health Foundation. The workshops are free to anyone in the city facing ongoing health challenges, online and in person.
Our belief is that creativity is a basic right, regardless of health status, and that a healthy life includes creative activity.
Hera offers group activities in visual art, creative writing, photography, dance, singing and creative coding, and we partner with Fabrica Gallery to offer stone-carving and textile art.
Groups run as a weekly drop-in, or in eight week blocks. People can choose what they would like to try. Where we can we offer pathways forward to participatory programmes with other arts & culture organisations.
We also host walks, talks and outings when Covid and resources allow, and train GPs.
We face various challenges in integrating with local mental health services. Information about Hera was received enthusiastically by our local Wellbeing Service, but that has not converted into referrals, most of which still come from GPs. In addition, the number of people suffering with poor mental health in our city is much higher than the UK average, so services seem to be struggling, and relations with our local CCG can be inconsistent.
We hope to access funding this year to provide a creative link for people being discharged from secondary mental health care, so that the transition back to primary care is more supported and less traumatic.
Led by choreographer Rosaria Gracia, these popular and accessible weekly sessions provide a joyful mood-boost. Rosaria is an international specialist in Latin Dance, a researcher, and a former member of Brighton’s Carnival Collective. She also has training in supporting people with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s, who we know often struggle with their mental health too. Currently almost 50 people are enrolled and attending online. This has enabled access for people who would otherwise not attend, for mobility, health or religious reasons. The workshop can include people who remain seated or wish to have their video link turned off.
Due to the success of this group, we began a new dance session in 2020 that focuses on tap, jazz and music theatre dance, and is led by Rachel McKeague-Pittman, a former finalist on Britain’s Got Talent.
Sing for Better Health
Choir leader Udita Everett has four decades of experience and has run a weekly singing session for our older patients since 2014. We know from a Brighton & Sussex Medical School evaluation that 81% of people taking part made new friends, and around 75% reported improved mood as well as breathing. The group performs annually at the Brighton Festival Fringe and at other events. Participants very often live with extreme social isolation, bereavement, and a range of mental and physical health challenges. Given the unfamiliarity of online technologies to some older people, we worked with AbilityNet to provide members of this group with one-to-one support to help them use Zoom/Teams – which has been a huge success.
Two features of Udita’s group are the strength and proliferation of new friendships, and the number of participants who go on to join other singing groups around the city – all made possible by technology. This has been something of a silver lining for people in our community who have suffered the most during the pandemic.
Smaller creative writing groups meet three times a year for eight-week runs, exploring diverse writers, and trying out different narrative techniques and genres. The group is intimate, kind, respectful and safe, and often gets to grips with quite challenging pieces – but no-one is forced to disclose or do anything they don’t want to do. The focus is on enjoyment. It is led by Emma Drew, author of The Whole Person Recovery Handbook, who has over a decade’s experience of working with people in recovery and a background in literature. Health conditions that have been reported in this group include agoraphobia, anxiety & depression, addiction, PTSD, body dysmorphia, eating disorders and psychotic episodes, alongside COPD, kidney disease, Hepatitis C, lupus, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and persistent UTIs. Recently the group has tackled journals and memoirs, as a way to develop insights and new techniques for managing difficult feelings during the pandemic – and to find and exercise their unique voices.
Each year Hera hosts an exhibition at our host practice, Brighton Health & Wellbeing Centre, as part of the Artists’ Open House programme. Contributions in a variety of media come from both participants and artists (and sometimes NHS colleagues). Each year there is a theme – in 2021 it is Freedom, and will include visual art, text, video and music.
In 2020 we have partnered with Creative Future, The Old Market and Diversity & Ability on a three-year programme to widen access to Hera activities, and to provide training, networking and commissioning opportunities for freelance artists in health to showcase their work.
Watch words for Hera groups are Creativity and Community – peer support and professional arts expertise combine to generate a kind of magic that lingers in the memory and impacts profoundly on the culture of our home practice.
‘I am feeling better in myself, a new awareness. I’ve taken to carrying a camera whenever I go out. I feel relaxed in doing so, it’s more like meditation, thinking through the problems of getting the shot right.’
‘Overall positive. The course has reignited an old hobby, photography and created a new one. Bird watching. It has also motivated me to go out for regular early morning walks. This has been a sanity saver as I live in the north Laine so it’s very unsafe for a medically vulnerable person to be out in the daytime. The social aspect of the group was also very uplifting. It has really helped my stress level and anxiety issues.’
‘I really liked the community feeling, the creative space and the respect and compassion we showed each other. It sparked more feelings/desire to write creatively’
‘Enjoyed it thoroughly! Got me writing, learning new things and inspired me to write daily’
‘I love the Hera group, using different parts of my brain to create in new fresh ways and explore different themes each week. It’s also good to connect as I’m housebound due to my health. I’m really enjoying it’
‘I was only able to attend 1 due to other factors on my life needing sorting, leaving me in a chaotic home situation and problems with internet access at times. That having been said, the group was very inclusive and I found the instruction clear and supportive. My home situation and my mental health is much more stable at the moment so I would like an opportunity to continue with this group if any places are available’
‘Honestly, just the creative and social outlet. It was a fantastic experience’
‘It has been a highlight of the week over the past twelve weeks – and the session and the homework projects have become an important part of my weekly routine’
‘I absolutely love my weekly classes! I really enjoy how the art class is making me create in a very different way to how I usually make art. I thoroughly enjoy the creative writing group too, it gets my flow going in a way making art doesn’t and I am studying various avenues related to writing such as poetry and its different genres, and have written loads of poems. I love exploring storytelling and how powerful it is, and will join other creative writing groups. I also love the sense of connection it gives me as I’m housebound due to chronic illness and can feel very isolated at times. I look forward to continuing with both activities and hope the classes will continue as being online gives access to lots of activities I usually can’t take part in in person’