The micro-organisation Somewhere (just me & Nina Pope, usually) is now three years into an epic programme of distribution and engagement work with our feature film, The Closer We Get, which premiered in spring 2015 at Hot Docs in Canada before continuing to screen in 15 more countries. An autobiographical portrait of coming to terms with my late mother’s devastating stroke, I’ve personally attended almost fifty screenings, and represented the film at many health and social care events and informal stroke support activities too. (You can read more about all this work in a recent Blog I wrote for the Scottish Documentary Institute here)

It’s been a fantastic and humbling experience, and many of the invitations have originated in people seeing me speak at something and then getting in touch. But ‘The Closer We Get’ isn’t a conventional ‘social issue’ film, it’s not ‘about’ stroke, and the outreach work we have done doesn’t deliver training in the conventional how-to way. It builds empathy via an engrossing and cinematic journey with my mum and me.

 


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So when I made a rather last-minute application to present our carer training work at Aesop’s second Arts & Health Showcase in London, I wasn’t really expecting to succeed in getting one of just 25 slots in the programme. Aesop is a national arts charity that brings together the worlds of arts and health. Last year’s inaugural event focused on mainly performing arts projects that were overtly therapeutic in hospitals and support groups – for example, dance groups for people with dementia or choirs for those with pulmonary health issues.

But what attracted me about the format was Aesop’s request that projects were presented by teams that included a project beneficiary – in other words, it wouldn’t be just me telling the audience that our work was effective, I’d need to find someone we had worked with to back up the claim! When we were confirmed to speak, it was a bit of a challenge to find someone who could and would join me to present our work. Many of the other speakers – as in the year before – were from comparatively well-funded, established charitable projects in healthcare settings, where ‘measurable beneficial outcomes’ were abundant and rapid. Our ‘See Beyond Stroke’ project had trained over 700 carers across a year to make small, achievable changes in their working practices, but our focus was on empathy-building towards patient-centred care, not easy to evidence quickly or easily. The training with our film had been usually delivered in small, hard-pressed care agencies who our team had worked very hard to get involved. We’d gathered great feedback and some extraordinarily insightful evaluations, but getting a trainer to join me in front of an audience to talk about that work is another matter. I decided to call a local care trainer (Ray Mowat, of Lakeland Carers) who’d been an enthusiastic adopter of our project, and luckily he was interested to take part. We collaborated on a Powerpoint that showed both sides of the project (Me – “I had no idea how carers got th eir training!”. Ray – “I’d never heard of Karen’s film until she called our office!”) and travelled to London to join the event at the Guildhall School of Music.

 


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My Highlights of the Event

The day kicked off with an affecting presentation from Michael, a man with Parkinson’s, who spoke for many in the room when he confessed to wanting to avoid support / activity groups for others with the condition, for fear of seeing the ‘end game’ of his deterioration. When he overcame this, he found himself instead liberated by joining with others unselfconsciously, and by the creativity of dance in itself, in a project by English National Ballet.

We then heard from Mike Hunter (Associate National Clinical Director for Mental Health) about the soaring demand for mental health support, and that despite recent improvements, not enough was reaching especially those in socio-economically deprived circumstances.

The recent green paper on Children & Youth mental health was mentioned, what, he wondered, might an arts-based approach to this urgent issue be? The brave Gillian Leng of NICE confessed that despite the plethora of evidence and randomized control trials proving the effectiveness of creative / arts-based therapies, this data was still considered ‘soft’ in comparison to that around conventional drug treatments. She called for more use of existing (public) data and apps etc to become part of evidence-gathering in the field.

The first presentation I attended introduced a 40-year arts charity, Akademi, delivering South Asian inspired dance (‘Dance Well’) to older, isolated adults isolated with dementia, based at the Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospitals.

Patsy Rosenberg, an acting coach and all round guru who’d taught everywhere from Soweto to the SAS and a lot in between, stole the stage in a captivating presentation, ‘Presence in the Power of Healing’,  about art’s awakening function. I’ll remember her ‘three circles of Being’ for a long time (we all should be in the first one if we want to be effective at anything).
Here’s a snapshot of the theory: Trump is in the third circle, dogs are in the first, and cats pretend to be in the second but really they are in the first.

A presentation on singing for lung health (British Lung Foundation) included randomized control evidence that participation had effectively ‘distracted’ sufferers from their illness and therefore improved outcomes by reducing anxiety sufferers felt, which led to better lung health.

Closer to home and to my own interest in stroke, the ‘About Being’ project based at Cumberland Infirmary & the University of Cumbria showed how a dance artist had worked with occupational therapists and physiotherapists to help stroke survivors re-engage with exercise. I hope to keep in touch with this team as we have much in common.

I also enjoyed hugely a Historic Royal Palaces presentation on their project to create intimate gatherings in some of their most special historical rooms, just for dementia sufferers. Spoken word, drama and sensory experiences are woven together to make very special experiences.


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Ray and I’s presentation was interrupted by my Mac crashing spectacularly, but I took questions while it restarted (“Why is your project not being rolled out nationally?”. My answer, ‘We’d love it to be, but we need partners to help!”). Ray showed real hand-written extracts from his company’s carer evaluation sheets, which was a great way to communicate how the film affected ordinary people in their own words. We also screened a short clip from the training programme, and of course, had we had a bit longer I’d have gladly shown more – it’s always the best way to show the value of what we have been doing, people instantly ‘get’ it. Ray also  – usefully – told the audience how limited most carer training is (moving & handling, meds admin. etc) and outlined the reality of a sector where poor pay and poor training is sadly just the norm. I mentioned the growing role of the ‘impact producer’ in the doc film world and encouraged heathcare people in the room to be part of this new field of collaboration between films and heath / social care training and engagement. There is so much potential there. Audience feedback was great – especially a ‘Let’s get this rolled out nationally!’ comment.

What Next?

In many ways  – as usual – the final plenary was where things got more animated and in some ways, critical – in a useful way. Someone asked, Where are the art therapists in all this? This was something I too had noticed was absent either in attendance in the audience or on the speaker platforms – it seems odd that this existing professional group isn’t contributing to this kind of event. This lead to discussions concerning quality and safe-guarding, especially around vulnerable people with mental health problems. Some in the audience advocated ‘just doing it’ if you were an arts professional with an idea that could benefit those with health issues, but as someone pointed out, that’s all very well if you’re ‘just’ playing a piano in an old people’s home. What if you’re working with people at risk of suicide though? Who ensures you are responsible and capable? Some arts professionals (and a representative from Arts Council England) pointed out organisations and courses that already offer training and case studies. A member of the audience highlighted that if medical and arts students collaborate during university, then they are more likely to do so afterwards when they enter practice – i.e. that the seismic shift that is needed to ‘fuse’ the prescribing of arts-based therapies alongside conventional ones, has to start early on in education, which I thought was a valuable point.

Finally it was asked, But how do artists find healthcare partners to work with?Many people present mentioned signposting organisations, but these were often local and /or specific to some of the major health challenges such as dementia or cancer. Word of mouth can work, but it was admitted that GP’s are just too busy to actively research creative opportunities local to their practices – it needs to be brought ‘to’ them.

Social prescribing (i.e. the means by which primary care professionals such as nurses and GP’s can refer patients to non-clinical support services – e.g. arts projects – will be national by 2023, and in London within 2 years. (See https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/social-prescribing)

In theory, this move should facilitate a more expedient route between beneficial arts projects and those most in need of them.


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