Culture Vitamins: powerful medicine for mental health

Mental ill-health around the world seems to be downright epidemic, with more than 263 million people globally suffering from depression. Fewer than half of those affected receive treatment, because the stigma around the issue still prevents many people from seeking professional help. Therefore, Denmark took a different approach. The Nordic country launched an arts project that helps people get back on their feet.

Take your (culture) vitamins

The arts participation programme “Kulturvitaminer” (culture vitamins) aims to help unemployed Danes suffering from depression, anxiety and stress. Partly funded by the Danish health authority, activities combine music, literature, history, theatre and nature. Over a span of ten weeks, participants had the opportunity to go on two to three cultural excursions per week. So far, four municipalities such as Aalborg and Nyborg have offered their residents the chance to take part in the new scheme. 200 people, the majority being mothers in their late 30s or 40s, took part in the Aalborg pilot project in 2019.

One of the participants, 49-year-old kindergarten teacher Evy Mortenson, lost her job due to work-related stress. For the following six years she suffered from periods of ill health and chronic insomnia, as she worked from one temporary job to the next. Finally last year, the job centre offered her the chance to try Kulturvitaminer. “As soon as I walked into the welcome meeting, I felt a sense of relief. It was a shared experience and there were no expectations. We were just all there together in a judgment-free space,” she says.

Eva Mortenson, participant in Kulturvitaminer (image source: Kristian Fæste/The Guardian)

Mikael Odder Nielsen, the Aalborg course leader, explains: “We wanted to see if we could make people’s mental health better, reduce social isolation and help them get back into the labour market via culture.” A mix of different activities aims to accomplish that goal.

Art as modern medicine

The power of music for mental wellbeing is a key component of Kulturvitaminer. In collaboration with the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, participants can watch rehearsals and live performances. Watching music performed live has been proven to reduce stress. Furthermore, groups sing together (which releases dopamine and creates a feeling of belonging) and listen to playlists developed by music therapists

Aalborg Symphony works with Kulturvitaminer to improve people’s mental health
(image source: visitdenmark.fr)

Additionally, there are visits to the theatre to watch new productions and receive training by actors. During coaching sessions, participants are trained in body language to prepare them for job interviews. Moreover, they visit the local art museum and take part in creative workshops — proven to increase resilience.

Another unusual approach is that librarians read to participants for two hours. Most people will not have had books read to them since they were children, making it an emotional experience: “I spent so much of my life reading to others, but this time I needed help, and I felt taken care of. It was very powerful,” explained Mortenson. Brain scans have shown that reading a book stimulates neural pathways, thereby increasing empathy and wellbeing.

As research has shown the positive effect of nature on mental health, Kulturvitaminer also offers guided nature walks. “These are also valuable in terms of seeing how slowly things grow, in contrast to our busy modern lives,” states Nielsen.

Spending time in nature strengthens mental health (image source: visitaalborg.com)

Denmark leads the way

Anita Jensen, a postdoctoral researcher at Aalborg University, evaluated the successful results of Kulturvitaminer. Participants felt increased self-esteem and motivation, more joy instead of anxiety, improved social skills and relationships, as well as a better sense of their needs and self-care. They not only felt better mentally, but also physically — reporting less fatigue, more energy and the ability to relax.

“Because Denmark is a small country, we have a unique opportunity to make a difference by offering arts on prescription as a public health initiative,” explains Jensen. The course costs 12,000 Danish krone (£1,440) per person. By comparison, a single session with a psychologist costs about 1,000 krone, and a week on sick leave around 4,000 krone. Nielsen, the Aalborg course leader, adds: “We’re largely funded by the state, but the council can also decide that this is worthwhile and fund it independently from their own budgets when the pilot programme ends […].”

For Mortenson, Kulturvitaminer changed her life for the better: “I’d like to see the whole world taking their culture vitamins. I’m not the same person as I was when I started this process. I listen to classical music every day now, I meet my culture group for outings, even though our 10-week programme has finished, and I have a support network with new interests. I’ve even applied for a job in an art museum.”

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