How can community assets, creative health partnerships and social prescribing tackle health inequalities?

Helen Chatterjee, a Professor of Biology at UCL and Programme Director for UCL’s new Masters in Creative Health, discusses the urgency for using interdisciplinary approaches to tackle the social determinants of health. Helen is an advisor to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing and one of the founding trustees for the National Centre for Creative Health. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted significant inequalities where the poorest members of society have been adversely and disproportionately affected by coronavirus. There is substantial evidence demonstrating how community assets, such as museums, libraries, parks, arts and other organisations, have a key role to play in tackling health inequalities, particularly around supporting vulnerable people with complex needs. This is a key focus of research in our current research project – Community COVID – where we have been investigating how participants experiencing lockdown, self-isolation, who are vulnerable, or who are shielding as a result pf the pandemic, engage with community assets and resources. Community COVID is a collaborative research project funded by the AHRC as part of UKRI’s Covid-19 funding. The project is formed from a consortium of academics and people with lived experience, in partnership with Arts Council England, Voluntary Arts, the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance, NHS Personalised Care and the National Academy for Social Prescribing, and Natural England. 

The research has identified hundreds of resources, activities and programmes designed to support people during lockdown – both on and offline – some are adaptations of existing programmes but many are new programmes. Most are targeting isolation and mild-moderate mental health issues (including depression, anxiety). Data from multiple sources shows that people are participating in activities (both on- and offline) more often now than before COVID restrictions, but that there is uneven and disproportionate access to resources, and many individuals face significant barriers to access. We found a strong correlation of loneliness with psychological wellbeing; as loneliness decreased, wellbeing increased, as people engaged with community resources. Increases in wellbeing were associated with the extent to which participants felt connected to other people; hence the more connected they felt, the higher their wellbeing.  

As part of the Community COVID research project, participants mapped their ‘creative isolation journeys’.

The Community COVID research project has shed light on how creative and community engagement can be used to tackle some of the major social determinants of health (such as isolation, digital poverty, inequalities), and better understand how arts, creativity, nature and other community assets can be best deployed to tackle health inequalities. A key feature of our findings is the value of developing ‘creative health’ partnerships which harness the collective power of arts, nature and creativity, in association with health, social care and third sector services. In some cases this has led to new and unexpected collaborations (such as museums, libraries or artists working with food banks or local authority risk registers), and this has created new ways of working to support vulnerable, marginalised or isolated members of the community.  

Thus, it has never been timelier to consider how we tackle health inequalities and creative approaches to health provide an innovative solution to help tackle the social determinants of health. To this end we recently launched a new MASc in Creative Health at UCL. The MASc is the first programme of its kind in the world and takes its name from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing’s 2017 ‘Creative Health Inquiry Report’. This report contains more than 1,000 references to an array of arts-based projects, programmes, research studies and reports – showcasing the significant contribution that arts, creative and community engagement makes to health and wellbeing. The report makes ten recommendations, and the MASc in Creative Health is a direct response to recommendation eight: ‘to create more education and training opportunities dedicated to the contribution of the arts to health and wellbeing’.  

The MASc in Creative Health is not just a new field of study but a completely new qualification – The Masters in Arts and Sciences brings together a range of different disciplines from across the arts, humanities, medicine and sciences, taking an interdisciplinary approach to tackling complex global challenges, such as health inequity. 

The programme is designed to appeal to students who are interested in creative and community-based approaches to tackling inequalities, with a focus on connecting research, policy and practice.  We are interested in developing a new generation of socially engaged scholars and practitioners to meet the needs of a changing health, social care and voluntary third sector, where personalised care, social prescribing, health equity and the patient experience are mainstreamed into public health. 

Lessons learnt from the pandemic offer new insights into how community assets could be repositioned to support individuals who face the most severe inequalities, but there is still a long way to go to understand how to ensure equitable access to assets in the community – particular in areas of high socio-economic deprivation – i.e. how we can make the community ecosystem fairer and more equitable for all. 

For more information about the MASc in Creative Health starting in September 2021; contact: or follow us on Twitter: @Masc_Ucl.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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