What are health inequalities?
Health inequalities are the unjust and avoidable differences in people’s health across the population and between specific population groups. Health inequalities mean that some people experience poorer health than average and often die younger, for reasons of poverty, deprivation, discrimination and/or disempowerment.
Health inequalities are not inevitable, they are related to our overall social and economic system and the circumstances people find themselves in, and these unjust and avoidable differences in people’s health need to be prevented and reduced. In the most affluent areas of Scotland, men experience 23.8 more years of good health and women experience 22.6 more years compared to the most deprived areas.
The existence of health inequalities in Scotland means that the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health is not being enjoyed equally across the population. Public Health Scotland
So, what role do the arts play in helping to address health inequalities?
The last eighteen months have been an eye opener. When the first lockdown occurred, support, kindness and inventiveness blossomed. Shelter was organised for those who had none, food was delivered to those who had little, and contact was made with those in need of friendly voice.
It also reminded us that significant inequalities continue to exist. Not only do some people not have shelter or enough food to live on, but they also don’t have enough money to heat their home, or access to digital means to stay in touch or to help get the support they need.
When lockdown hit creativity flourished. It flourished not because the right structures had been created for it to do so. It flourished because we are all inherently inventive and the pandemic was a catalyst for creativity in many different walks of life. This was not only expressed through art in the windows, but also through finding quick ways to circumnavigate bureaucratic structures, and to make what seems impossible, possible.
Working in the arts we often talk about the fact that little attention is being paid to its importance and its use in everyday lives. It takes a pandemic to dispel a myth. Creativity is inherent in all of us, it makes us who we are. It articulates what we experience, gives voice to our feelings, provides new perspectives, and can create a sense of hope where things might feel hopeless.
Art creates a space where issues and experiences can be explored from a perspective which resonate with others. It helps us make connections and lets us see experiences from different points of view, be that through writing, for example the 2018 Orwell Prize-winning ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey, or the visual arts practice of 2021 Turner Prize nominated Gentle/Radical.
Creative opportunity provides a space where people with little direct arts experience can come together to share something that inspires, excites or breaks the monotony of life in an institutional setting.
So, how might you go about starting this creative or cultural dialogue? You have to get yourself out there and find ways of getting the conversation going, and that is where the creative process starts. There are many ways to create a space which is open and not intimidating. Through this dialogue we begin to understand how people lead their lives, what pressures and frustrations they face, what their hopes and ambitions are and what interests and skills they bring. Conversations start and evolve. One day you might be gardening with a group of people and as a consequence of what feels like a random conversation about beekeeping, you start on a 3 year-long journey that ends up in a re-designed Scottish Beekeepers pavilion at the Royal Highland Show.
How do we know that any of this makes a difference?
Well, just look at what happened and if you have to be convinced of the fact that art is important of, and in itself, then simply look at the environment it creates. One where people are valued, where skills are recognised and identities celebrated.
Although art, creativity and culture is not some kind of magic healing bullet it is intrinsically about who we are, or perhaps more importantly, what we could be.
Jan-Bert van den Berg, Director, Artlink Edinburgh & Lothians and Board Member of ACHWS.
All images are credited Artlink Edinburgh & Lothians.
An excellent, short, comprehensible and up to the minute one page briefing on health inequalities, provided by the Scottish Parliament’s information team (SPICE). It also discusses why and how covid is widening the health inequalities gap between certain groups, notably rich and poor: https://digitalpublications.parliament.scot/ResearchBriefings/Report/2021/3/23/ee202c60-93ad-4a27-a6e7-67613856ba24