Painting Your Mind

A paintbrush might seem an unlikely tool to ease mental health issues like anxiety. But art can do this in different ways. It can help by focusing the mind on a creative task, so that you concentrate more fully on what you are doing and the dear loosens its hold, for a time. It can help by boosting confidence and a feeling of capability, so that the fear shrinks a little. Obviously a lot depends on the cause of the anxiety, and sometimes anxiety can become so extreme that it could seem impossible to concentrate at all.

Fear and anxiety are familiar feelings for many people, and this year has seen anxiety levels spiral. For some, coronavirus has accentuated existing anxieties, for others this is a new experience.

A feeling of isolation or loneliness is integral to many (although not all) mental health issues, and this is somewhere where art can help. By painting or drawing in a group, people can feel part of a team or community. But even if you paint or draw alone, creativity can ease loneliness as it expresses emotions or ideas which might be suppressed. Translating those thoughts onto paper or into colour is a form of sharing.

Photo by Emily Hopper on

Just as art can help people express themselves on personal issues, it can also enable them to explore wider issues (local, national or global). Covid-19 has highlighted how world events can suddenly overturn our lives. But it is far from alone. Now that more and more people recognize that a climate emergency is underway, this can add to depression or anxiety about what the future holds, so that it is likely to have a growing impact on mental health.

In some ways, there might seem little to connect art with climate change, but art is becoming an important way for people to respond and to express different reactions. One example is the work of Climate Museum UK, a Community Interest Company which uses objects and art to enable people to express themselves on climate issues in imaginative ways.

People might feel helpless in the face of so enormous and complex an issue as climate change. Art can allow you to visualize a different future, to imagine alternatives, and to empathize with other people or creatures. Climate Museum UK is planning a new project called The Wild Museum, with the team dressing as animal curators to help young people explore climate change’s impacts on other species.

For 2020, The Big Draw has even renamed itself The Big Green Draw, with its theme A Climate Of Change, focusing on people’s relationship with nature, the living environment through art classes, workshops and other (mainly virtual) events.

I recently took part in an art challenge to paint or draw “signposts and barriers” – what helps us to find ways to live more sustainable, and what holds us back. Just thinking what I might paint focused my mind on what the barriers really are, so that I could represent them simply, and I found this helpful.

All this recognizes that far from being separate from life, secondary or trivial, art instead grows out of life- and can contribute to change and wellbeing, either for any one person, or for communities. Do you agree? How have you found art helpful? It would be great if you could share any thoughts on Medley’s new Facebook group,

A Song To Sing

Is singing always more powerful than instrumental music in boosting wellbeing? This is one question Medley plans to explore more widely. If it is more powerful, then why is this? Many songs have a strong narrative element. Is it this storytelling which makes songs memorable because people can identify with them? Do we have an innate instinct to respond more to voice than to other sounds? Do lyrics simply add another layer, as words and music combine so that hearing a song is more striking? Or maybe there are just more opportunities to take part, as more people can sing than play an instrument (although clapping in time or improvising on percussion, say, do enable people to respond to instrumental music).

In exploring some of the ways music and song can improve life for people of all ages, I came across the work of The Smiling Sessions, which for the hast ten years has brightened the lives of older people in sheltered housing and care homes through singalongs ( These singalongs clearly have a very positive impact and I wanted to learn about the ideas behind them. I’m grateful to Alison Jones, Artistic Director, for telling me more.

copyright The Smiling Sessions: Our Team of Professional Musicians

I asked Alison whether singing’s impact is different and why that might be: “Older people definitely relate more to singing than they would to instrumental music. Singing triggers memories – usually happy ones but sometimes sad ones. People can relate to songs; it may remind them of a significant person or event in their lives. Singing has always been a great means of raising spirits and keeping people of all ages healthy. Now more and more research is showing the power of singing to heal the brain, the imagination and the heart.”

 She went on: “Singing is very inclusive; people feel included in the experience if they can sing and take part. They want to join in. It’s been wonderful to see our remote sing-a-long Smiling Sessions reaching and helping so many people who are still isolated because of Covid, raising their mood and enhancing their quality of life.”

Another important aspect of music and song’s impact on wellbeing is the question of repertoire. With so many possibilities across all music styles and eras, it could be very dfficult to identify which songs or pieces of music might have more impact. Songs can attract by their familiarity, but also by their novelty. Even a new song can remind you of an older one, while new covers of old songs can help you enjoy a once familiar song in a new light. So I wondered how The Smiling Sessions go about choosing which songs to feature in their singalongs. Alison Jones explained:

 “For ten years now we have asked our users to tell us what their favourite songs are. With an age range of 65-105, this has resulted in a huge spectrum of generations of music. Over the years we have built up a library of well over 100 songs, plus 20 Christmas songs.”

Around 60% of The Smiling Sessions’ participants across sheltered housing and care homes have dementia, while the percentage specifically among their care home participants is far higher. Now that music and song’s importance in dementia is widely recognized, this further highlights The Smiling Sessions’ impact.

Maybe you could share your own thoughts and experiences on Medley’s Facebook group, which has only just started? Do you agree that singing has more impact than instrumental music? And why do we respond more to some songs than to others? It would be great to hear any thoughts or ideas you would like to share.

Rooted and Grounded

At a time when we connect with other people more and more through screens and our lives have become more and more virtual, nature can become a counterbalance. Connecting with the natural world actively by planting, growing or clearing makes us almost literally rooted and grounded, with more of a feeling of place.

Planting bulbs expresses hope, investing in the future. Growing a few vegetables expresses independence, in an age when so many of us have become separated from how our food is produced. Even simple conservation tasks express commitment, making a landscape or a patch of ground more of a habitat for wildlife maybe.

Independence can boost confidence, hope can improve mood, contributing to biodiversity can create different perspectives. There are so many diverse ways that connecting with nature can help us all.

Photo by cottonbro on

The gardening therapy charity Thrive runs a range of projects creating opportunities for people to engage with planting and growing in different circumstances. One is their stroke programme in Battersea Park, which people attend to support their rehabilitation following a stroke. Time spent working in the Thrive therapy garden there has helped many stroke survivors to improve their physical and mental recovery – from motor skills and limb strength to confidence and communication. The garden has become a community of its own, drawing together people who share similar experiences and can support one another.

Stroke rehabilitation is one area where nature can have a strong impact, specifically because it contributes to mental as well as physical recovery.

This year the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine published the Nature Stroke Study, the first trial of its kind with stroke survivors who have post-stroke fatigue. Gardening therapy over 8 weeks, alongside walking and simply time spent in nature, proved to have a postive impact, and hopefully larger-scale trials or initiatives will follow.

Like many art and music for wellbeing groups, there’s a strong community element to many nature initiatives as well, like the Thrive garden. Simple everyday tasks like weeding or watering can seem more constructive and worthwhile in a group. Across different people’s experiences, it’s sometimes difficult to identify which element makes the greatest difference: is it the time spent outdoors in the fresh air? The connection with the natural world, with soil and trees and birdsong? Is it completing practical tasks like sowing seeds or growing tomatoes? Is it the opportunity to leave your stamp on a patch of earth? Or is it the sense of community spirit, the opportunity to be part of a team and to share? Maybe you could share your own thoughts and experiences in Medley’s new Facebook group, which has only just started, and help get the ball rolling. Thank you.

For people with a disability or illness, or for older people, the loss of fitness or freedom to spend time outdoors can be painful, so that new ways of connecting with nature are all-important. People with limited mobility may sometimes take part indoors, maybe in a care home, where older people can help with container gardening. This enables connection with the cycle of planting and growing, but it may be very different from what the older people could once do. People of all ages may become frustrated or disheartened if they are unable to do what others can do, or what they themselves could do before they became ill or disabled. One way to create a fresh perspective for people might be to try experimenting with a wide range of tasks or activities, maybe growing types of plants new to the participants, so there’s less occasion to compare with what once was. Or where gardening is not possible, using art, craft or music to engage people with nature could become an alternative (as in Medley’s Creative Ideas – )

Age And Art

When I think about art, I think of colour and exuberant life, so it’s no wonder that drawing, painting or crafting brighten so many older people’s lives. As lives narrow and dementia or frailty make many people inactive, visual art can become a vital stimulus. And where language fails, line and colour can become a new language, a way to communicate, to connect with others or to express a view of the world, even as that world shrinks. Since long-term memory may remain, painting or drawing could revive that memory and allow people to relive earlier parts of their lives. In music, remembering lyrics or notes can be difficult for people with dementia, so that improvisation is more practicable. Art always allows people that freedom to improvise, to experiment with colour and form.

Photo by Pixabay on

Beyond Words is an arts initiative for care home residents living with dementia run by Art Therapy4All, a Community Interest Company or CIC which works to bring art therapy to a wider community. Art Therapy4All organizes events and subsidised art therapy sessions with a range of participants, from children and young people to the elderly. The Beyond Words project, which began in 2016 runs in 10 care homes across London, offering regular art therapy sessions for groups of up to 8 participants per week. Therapists use the SPECAL method developed by the Contented Dementia Trust as a communication tool with the dementia patients. Art Therapy4All also arranges exhibitions of artwork, which aim to facilitate understanding of the healing power of art. Find out more at:

I think the online exhibition (which you can see following the link) really highlights how participants all brought their own experiences of life and of art to the Beyond Words project sessions. While they may all have dementia, they all still came with different perspectives and their artwork reflects this, from Jean’s Sunburst pattern and Floral tiles to other participants’ landscapes (like Anne’s Painted landscape with mouse) and abstracts.

Obviously it is important to recognise that older age can make taking part in art or craft activities more difficult. Sight loss, far more common in older people, can either limit participation or make artwork impossible. People’s motor skills may decline, so that they find it difficult to hold a brush or pen. Conditions like arthritis or stroke can contribute to this. And yet art is known to be helpful for people recovering from a stroke. It can improve their physical condition as well as easing depression, as the charity Paintings In Hospitals reports.Some aphasia groups (for people with speech difficulties) use drawing and other art forms as an alternative way to communicate and share or express thoughts.

Maybe the most striking outcome of Age UK’s research for their Index of Wellbeing in Later Life was the conclusion that it was creative participation which contributes most directly to older people’s wellbeing, out of the 40 factors they assessed. This only highlights how very important it is to go on widening opportunities for older people to take part in visual arts and craft, and to explore and share the many specific yet diverse ways older people create in different circumstances.

Mood Music

Opening up new perspectives, boosting mood, enabling people to express themselves: music, art and nature all have lasting impacts on mental health and wellbeing. Future Medley blog posts on mental health will look at art and nature as well, but here I’ll explore a little of music’s specific impact. 10th October marks World Mental Health Day, and this year’s theme is Mental Health For All: Greater Investment, Greater Access. Highlighting inequalities in mental health care, the theme calls for wider support – and I feel it is an opportunity to widen awareness of the diverse ways music could be harnessed to help.

Mental health covers so many distinct issues, all of which have their roots in different needs and experiences. In turn, with music (or art or nature) there’s immense scope for different responses. Firstly,there’s the question of how people engage with music. Is participatory music always the most helpful? Is singing always more beneficial than instrumental music? If so, is this because the use of language enables people to express themselves more clearly, or because singing as a skill is more viable for people than would be learning an instrument?

The Sing Up Foundation is just one organization which talks about singing specifically easing loneliness and depression, boosting confidence, improving community cohesion. The Foundation adds that singing embodies mindfulness, as it requires focus and concentration on different levels.

Photo by Wallace Chuck on

Then there’s the question of what music people listen to, play or sing. Some people might find unfamilar music unsettling, while others could feel liberated by the unfamiliar. Even well-known musical styles might be disturbing or jarring to some, but positive and energizing to others.

One project working to improve mental health in a specific target group is Room To Rant, run in partnership by the University of Brighton and the grassroots music charity Audioactive. Room To Rant has run for the last year, with regular rap workshops for young men aged 16-26, an age group widely known to have high levels of depression. The project enables the young men to express themselves by drawing on the power of rap, an art form which unites instrumental music with the spoken word.

Further questions surround the actual nature of music’s contribution to mental wellbeing. Coronavirus and lockdown have highlighted music’s impact as refuge or escape. Streaming companies and researchers report a surge in demand for upbeat pop classics. Earlier in lockdown the BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawney described listeners’ drift away from the deep emotion of Bach or Schubert to livelier music – Louis Armstrong, Mozart and a new March of the Day feature. This is one way we use music: to distract and to lighten mood. But another part of music’s positive impact on mental health can be the way it allows people to explore the dark times they may be enduring, to work through their trauma or depression and openly to respond. All musical styles could contribute to either. ENO is trialling Breathe, a project with coronavirus survivors, using song to assist their mental and physical recovery alike. And music therapy can allow people with extreme anxiety to express their fears non-verbally.

The more demand for mental health support spirals, the greater the need to diversify and support people in new and different ways. Music (like art and nature) could become integral, through music therapy but also through a host of other ways to engage with music and song. Awareness is growing, but needs to highlight that music can be therapy or self care, distraction and refuge or specific tool.

Observe and Experience

So far Medley’s blog has focused on music and art, but nature is also integral to Medley’s aims. Mirroring art and music’s impacts, there are also many ways in which connecting with the natural world can help health and wellbeing.

Photo by Dariusz Grosa on

Striking reflections on connecting with nature come from well-known people and writers in different circumstances: living with Asperger’s, or with depression, or with anxiety and mental health struggles. Dara McAnulty has told of seeking out quiet places where he can concentrate fully on absorbing natural sights and sounds. In his Classic FM interview with Moira Stuart on 27 September, Monty Don spoke about nature’s impact on depression, the gradual new focus it creates and the way you begin to feel part of the natural world’s rhythms and cycles. Joe Harkness has written thoughtfully about the sensory, immersive power of nature, as he describes connecting with the natural world through birdwatching and birdsong.

Lived experience is supported by research. In 2019 researchers in Denmark conducted an evidence review of some 130 studies into woodland’s proven impact on adults in reducing levels of physical and emotional stress alike. In the UK, the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group was the first of its kind when it was formed. Its 5 Pathways To Nature Connectedness explore the diverse ways we respond to nature: but are only one part of the Group’s multi-faceted work.

Maybe nature’s impact on us has its main roots in observation. Is it always helpful simply to ‘be’ in nature? Do we have an instinct to plant, to clear, to make an active contribution? Sometimes I like simply to sit or stand or walk. At other times I want to respond, to interact with what I see. Either I feel photography or drawing will defy time. Or I want to feel part of nature’s wonder.

One important focus here (which I want to explore more as Medley grows) is the way nature and the arts can work together. Nature can feed music and art, while creativity can add new layers to the way we respond to nature. Music heard, sung or played outdoors can be more powerful. Differing acoustics in diverse open-air settings can create a new perspective. It can also highlight the narrow line which divides natural sounds (biophony), like whale calls or birdsong, from music. Art can deepen our response to nature as well. I know that when I spend time drawing or painting plants or wildlife, I become more observant. If I then go for a walk, I find myself focusing on a tree’s shape or form, on the shade cast by a hedge or on the colour and gleam of ivy or laurel. I only paint birds from photographs (obviously more practical) but still notice that I look differently at the birds in my garden, at the angle of a woodpecker’s head as it feeds, or the flick and dart of a house sparrow.

Observation in itself becomes a form of interaction, so if I observe more closely, I connect more with what I see. Three of the University of Derby Nature Connectedness Research Group’s 5 Pathways (Senses, Emotion and Beauty) are specifically observational. Experiencing nature through observation is integral to any full experience of nature, even if it also involves practical tasks or activities. Observation might seem very visual, but can cover any sense. People with sight loss might observe through sound or touch. All time spent in nature can stimulate the senses in different ways. The Sensory Trust runs Creative Spaces for people with dementia and Sensory Nature Adventures and Play for children with disabilities and their families.

Maybe there are as many different ways to experience the natural world as there are different places, ecosystems and species to explore. For some, that experience may involve art, music or other art forms. For all, observation itself could become a way to respond.

Care To Create

You might think that during long months of lockdown, arts activities would have ground to a halt in care homes of all places. You would be wrong.

In a year when so much media coverage of care homes has focused on delays in coronavirus testing and scarcity of PPE, it is more important than ever that people mark the National Day of Arts In Care Homes. It is an opportunity to celebrate the many imaginative, creative ways in which care homes and other organisations have gone on drawing on the arts to brighten residents’ lives throughout the pandemic.

This year’s theme is #CreativeCommunities, and connection is all.

Barriers thrown up be closing many care homes to visitors proved little barrier to so many organisations. Technology has allowed many care homes to continue to connect with the arts. The Smiling Sessions, which began sharing music with care home residents ten years ago, is one organisation to have drawn on technology’s power. They have just launched the second series of their Smiling Remotely Singalongs, this time featuring special guest KT Tunstall.

Nor has technology proved the only solution. Many care homes have run art and craft activities within the home, with residents making flags or bunting to mark this year’s VE Day commemorations.

In some ways, care homes have become a more viable focus for creativity than other settings. While so many support groups, choirs or painting classes have closed for the foreseeable future, care homes find themselves in a very different position. Where support groups have halted because people are unable to gather to paint or sing, care home residents already live in a communal group environment. Some community groups have moved online, but this has not always proved possible, and their closure has left a gaping hole in many participants’ lives. Another side of the wider picture.

Many people who perhaps never gave life in a care home a second thought before Covid-19 struck, have now begun to imagine and to understand. It is a happy irony that it is at a time when care homes have become more insular than ever, that people have opened their minds to try to reach out.

As care homes continue to battle the invisible threat posed by coronavirus and as winter nears, the National Day of Arts In Care Homes shines a light on residents’ everyday lives and everyday needs. It highlights music and other art forms as a tool to build connections: to enable residents to relate to each other and to the wider world. When two thirds of care home residents live with a dementia diagnosis, relating to other people through art, music or other creativity may be easier than communicating verbally.

So let’s celebrate and recognize all the #CreativeCommunities across the country for their perseverance and commitment.

In Unison

As we adjust to Covid-19 for the long haul, uncertainties has become one of few certainties. And uncertainty over communal music-making at this time throws up questions on music’s impact on wellbeing. Is it the music itself which helps or the opportunities it creates to interact with others? Is hearing or performing music alone equally beneficial as gathering with others to listen or to play?

On the one hand, the BBC Proms’ return to live concerts for their last fortnight signalled progress. But on the other hand, hearing the Last Night of the Proms play from a near-deserted Royal Albert Hall highlighted how slow that progress has to be. Gone was the festive atmosphere, full of life and barely-suppressed excitement. Instead, conductors and musicians spoke (on the BBC Radio 3 broadcast) of their yearning to see audiences return.

I still remember Sakari Oramo’s speech as conductor at the 2019 Last Night of the Proms, in which he talked about the power of live music as demonstrated by the crowds which turn out for the event year upon year. He would little have imagined then that his successor this year, Dalia Stasevska, would conduct behind closed doors.

Photo by Pixabay on

Music still has an undoubted impact, as proven by the way people have engaged with music online throughout the pandemic, with initiatives drawing on new participants all the time. Virtual music-making may be different, but clearly it is still needed. Do these initiatives prove most helpful when they are interactive? Responses to music (like clapping or dancing) can help wellbeing: autistic children and young people can find this liberating. Do people respond more like this in a group, or might they feel more free to respond alone?

I know people’s motivations differ when they attend music, art or nature groups. For many, the priority is creativity or nature connection. For others, the focus is on shared experience and a feeling of community. And obviously the two may interweave. One aim of specific music therapy across different circumstances (from autism to dementia and mental health to name but three) is to enable people to express themselves and to communicate more easily. This makes interacting through music integral. Singing and music-making to improve aphasia following a stroke may also be communal. The groundbreaking El Sistema has spawned group music-making across the UK for children and young people who might have few other opportunities to play. From Sistema and The Big Noise to In Harmony, these initiatives draw young people together across a community. They are intrinsically communal.

Then came coronavirus, creating new barriers. Barriers which cast into focus the point where music as medicine and music as community meet. How differently do we respond to music alone or with others? Is singing more dependent on community than playing an instrument would be? How are participatory groups and choirs to weave together different needs? Maybe you could share thoughts, responses or experiences on the Medley forum at ? The absence of community could become an opportunity to learn more about music’s diverse impacts on us all.

Rekindle Memory

Time and time again I hear how music, art or nature resonate with people who have dementia, opening up worlds which seemed closed. Dementia may have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has once again delayed proposed care reforms. But it has not gone away. Instead it has gone on spiralling.

Next week, 21st September marks #WorldAlzheimersDay. While Alzheimer’s disease is only one form of dementia (a group of over 100 illnesses), it is maybe the most widely known. It was first fully described by Alois Alzheimer in 1907, over a century ago.

Every year World Alzheimer’s Day has a different theme, and this year’s theme is stigma. Awareness of dementia may be growing but stigma still surrounds these diseases. People diagnosed with dementia may struggle with shame while people around them may struggle to interact with them as they used to do. Sharing music, art and nature within communities creates common ground which helps people with dementia and people without dementia to relate to one another: this could be one way to reduce stigma. As people spend time together and share experiences where dementia is less of a barrier, stigma loses its power to isolate those living with a dementia diagnosis. And as dementia progresses and someone’s cognition declines so that conversation becomes difficult or impossible, music, nature or art could become a way to connect.

Crucial to reaching people who have dementia through music is the memory bump. Research has found that people are most likely to remember and respond to music they first heard during their memory bump years – from their teens to early thirties. So trying to reawaken failing memory through songs and music needs to reflect age and generation. I was talking with someone recently who was saying that they hope they won’t have to sing wartime songs when they move into a care home: this is someone born in the early 60s, who likes 80s music.

Dementia forces people to live in the moment more than ever before. Memories of the past may become confused and the future is unknown, but you might still respond to the present moment. Connecting with nature is all about living in the moment for any of us, as so many encounters with wildlife are fleeting: a glimpse of a bird darting by, or a moth in lamplight.

Painting might allow someone who has dementia to express themselves as spoken language deteriorates. Even just watching, helping, using colours, could prove worthwhile. What is possible will depend on the rate at which the dementia progresses or the person’s existing experience of music or art. Some people are still able to play an instrument they learned years earlier.

So this #WorldAlzheimersDay could be an opportunity to rekindle memory through music or to interact through art or nature, and lessen the stigma of living with dementia. Could you share your ideas or experiences on the Medley forum? Just go to Thank you.

Lockdown’s Long Shadow?

At a time when the digital world was fast growing, lockdown has only accelerated its part in our lives. But lockdown has also highlighted the importance of real-life, face to face interaction and the need for live music, art groups and events and time spent outdoors in nature. When concert halls fall silent, art groups have to be suspended and we have little or no freedom to go outside, we come to see all that we stand to lose.

Where lockdown closed doors, virtual, online initiatives held them ajar. They have created new opportunities as well as allowing existing groups to observe restrictions on movement and contact. When so many music, nature and art initiatives for health and wellbeing are built around connection, moving that connection online proved the most likely alternative.

Photo by cottonbro on

Some will see or remember lockdown as a dark time of loneliness, loss of support, blank fear. Some see or remember it as a time of freedom, breathing space to be themselves. For some there was darkness as well as light, light as well as darkness.

Time away from work or other commitments became, for many, an opportunity for art, for nature, for music. Was this just a way to spend time or has it signalled an instinctive awareness of nature, music and art’s power to help? And will it prove more lasting?

So is connecting online through virtual music, art or nature initiatives any less helpful than would be face to face, real-life initiatives? Or does it have its own strengths in opening up projects to reach more people or in allowing people to explore and experiment with less commitment? Maybe experiences differ across the three areas. Gathering to sing or play and hear live music is so integral to music-making that music may depend on face-to-face interaction more than art would. But then again, techniques may be more easily shared during an art session in a group rather than online. Virtual experiences of nature could open up new, deeper and less fleeting sightings, maybe through macro insect photography.

And online communities free us all from barriers of geography and distance, which I for one find so very helpful.

Looking ahead, will virtual initiatives run on in to the future, or will we return to a more local focus on face-to-face sessions? Local groups bind communities together, while online groups may build new communities, either local or drawn from a wider area. Maybe the two can co-exist and evolve together, side by side. Lockdown leaves a long shadow and more questions than answers. But it also leaves freedom and scope to re-imagine new ways to connect through music, art and nature alike.