How can officers help to position the arts, culture and heritage within their council’s public health priorities? Alan Higgins, Director of Public Health, Oldham Council, shares his thoughts. This opinion piece forms part of the inspiring officer leadership section of our online Culture Hub.
Oldham has a range of projects which use arts and culture to address public health issues. They include:
- Oldham Theatre Workshop’s production ‘Boy in the Black Box’, which toured local schools with a focus on promoting positive mental health in young people.
- ‘Chapatti and Chat’, a project developed by Oldham Council’s Arts Development and Public Health teams to raise awareness and creatively educate in the prevention of diabetes in adults from South Asian communities.
- Health drop-in and advice sessions provided through the library service.
- A Health Awareness Day, a partnership between the library service and the Sathya Sai International Organisation, hosted in Oldham library.
- Access to free resources in local libraries, empowering people to understand and use health and wellbeing information effectively – for example, Shelf Help (part of the Books on Prescription Scheme) has expert-endorsed books for 13-18 year olds with advice and information about issues such as anxiety, stress, bullying and exams.
The association between arts, culture and public health in Oldham is a natural development from a shared interest in the potential of engaging people in arts and culture to support wellbeing. It is not a forced association. Heritage, libraries and arts in Oldham already contributed to activity to support confident and thriving communities before we made a more explicit link to public health and health and wellbeing. By making that link explicit, we opened up more opportunities and encouraged innovation to engage with people through creative activities in ways that promote social connections and wellbeing.
I have had an interest in community arts stretching over many years and have previously commissioned community theatre work on HIV prevention and other issues. The value of arts in engaging with people on difficult health issues, or health issues that people have less interest in, was clear to me. Engaging communities in arts activity can achieve more than simply providing information on a health issue. Equally, staff in heritage, libraries and arts in Oldham saw the opportunity to engage in challenging and rewarding work on mental wellbeing, community cohesion and other issues with a direct health interest.
We had begun joining up these interests before heritage, libraries and arts became the responsibility of the Director of Public Health in Oldham, but that development sealed the joint working arrangements. It must be noted that the heritage, libraries and arts agenda is entirely legitimate without the connection to public health, and it exists of its own accord in contributing to Oldham’s cultural life. The connections between public health and arts and culture probably already exist in every local authority, and officers are doing a lot of innovative work to join up activity across the two. This can be taken a step further by making the connections explicit and doing the joint work intentionally, rather than leaving it to happy accident. It is not essential that your Director of Public Health also leads on heritage, libraries and arts, but it does help!
This opinion piece has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England.