Innovative programs in both the UK and Canada aim to heal with art and nature.
UK and Canada doctors prescribe art and nature to combat a host of ailments
Doctors in Shetland, Scotland, are authorised to prescribe nature to their patients. Thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, the program seeks to reduce blood pressure, anxiety, and increase happiness for those with diabetes, a mental illness, stress, heart disease, and more. Meanwhile, in Montreal, Canada, doctors are able to prescribe free art museum visits to patients with a range of ailments, from depression to diabetes to chronic illnesses.
Scottish doctors in Shetland prescribe nature
Since October 2018, doctors in Shetland, Scotland, have been able to prescribe nature to their patients. It’s thought to be the first program of its kind in the UK, and seeks to reduce blood pressure, anxiety, and increase happiness for those with diabetes, a mental illness, stress, heart disease, and more.
There is a whole leaflet of nature prescription suggestions that accompanies the program, filled with amusing, charming, sometimes seemingly off-kilter suggestions:
- in February, you can make a windsock from a hoop and material to "appreciate the speed of the wind"
- in March, you can make beach art from natural materials or "borrow a dog and take it for a walk"
- in April, you can "touch the sea" and "make a bug hotel"
- in May, you can "bury your face in the grass"
- in July, you can "pick two different kinds of grass and really look at them"
- in August, you can summon a worm out of the ground without digging or using water
- in September, you can help clean the beach and prepare a meal outdoors
- in October, you can "appreciate a cloud"
- you can "talk to a pony" in November
- "feed the birds in your garden" in December, and do so much more. All on doctor’s orders!
The evidence for the benefits of nature on mental and physical health are numerous:
If you spend 90 minutes of your day outside in a wooded area, there will be a decrease of activity in the part of your brain typically associated with depression. Spending time in nature not only reduces blood pressure, anxiety, and increases happiness, but it reduces aggression, ADHD symptoms, improves pain control, the immune system, and—per a summary of research regarding the health benefits of nature—there’s much more we don’t know and are figuring out every day.
Note: NHS Shetland is not suggesting that nature prescriptions will replace conventional medicines. Dr Chloe Evans, a GP who piloted the programme at Scalloway health centre on the west coast of Shetland’s main island, told The Guardian it supplemented normal treatments.
“There are millions of different ways of doing medicine but we very much try to involve people in their own health, and people really like being empowered,” Evans said.
“People are always thinking at some level about their diet or exercise or stopping smoking but finding out what works for them is the key. The beauty about Shetland is it has this fantastic wild landscape.”
Montreal doctors prescribe museum visits
Art heals. That’s the philosophy behind an initiative from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which, since 2018, has allowed doctors to prescribe a visit to a museum.
“There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health,” said Dr. Hélène Boyer, vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada and the head of the family medicine group at the CLSC St-Louis-du-Parc told the Montreal Gazette.
“It increases our level of cortisol and our level of serotonin. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being. People tend to think this is only good for mental-health issues. That it’s for people who’re depressed or who have psychological problems. But that’s not the case. It’s good for patients with diabetes, for patients in palliative care, for people with chronic illness. Since the ’80s we’ve been prescribing exercise for our patients because we know exercise increases exactly the same hormones. But when I have patients who’re over 80, it’s not obvious that I can prescribe exercise for them.”
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) announced that as of 1 Nov. 2018, physicians who are members of Médecins francophones du Canada would be able to send patients on visits to the MMFA, allowing patients, accompanied by caregivers or family members, to enjoy the health benefits of a free trip to see some art. The museum said at the time that the one-year pilot project was the first such initiative in the world. The program will be used to deal with a wide variety of physical and mental-health problems.
Thomas Bastien, director of education and wellness at the Museum of Fine Arts, noted that the museum has been working with the medical community for 20 years to try to use art to help their patients. But this was the first time that the doctors were able to make museum prescriptions.
“We saw that the museum was good for people, so we decided to start this program with the doctors,” said Bastien. “If you’re suffering from breast cancer, you could come to the museum and you might feel better.”
Doctors were able to assign up to 50 museum prescriptions over the course of the pilot project. Each prescription allowed entry for up to two adults and two children age 17 or under.
Learn more about the impact of nature on our health.
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