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Community art project

for excluded teenagers
Rachel Hadland and Theodore Stickley describe the findings
from a study of the experiences of four young people who took
part in a local initiative after they were excluded from school

Summary Background
The art and health agenda has expanded
This article describes a study of the experiences of young people who took part in a considerably in recent years in the UK. At the
community art project in an inner-city area after being excluded permanently from same time, social inequality has increased and the
school. The study used descriptive phenomenology to investigate their experiences. incidence of mental health problems has risen
Unstructured interviews were conducted and two main themes were identified: (Stickley and Duncan 2007). Since being elected in
the teenagers’ experiences of taking part in the project and their involvement in it. 1997, the Labour government has focused attention
Personal and social benefits of the arts identified include enjoyment, achievement, on neighbourhood renewal and community cohesion
interacting with peers and engaging with the wider community. (SEU 1998, 2004), promoting community projects
that aim to reduce social exclusion and increase
Keywords social capital (Harper 2001).
Art, community art projects, qualitative research, social exclusion, young people Evidence suggests that social approaches
to organising and delivering public health may
art has long been considered a vehicle for bring health benefits, particularly for the most
mental health promotion and there are many claims disadvantaged (Health Development Agency
for the psychosocial benefits of engaging in art 2000). This is significant because socioeconomic
activities (Matarasso 1997, Jermyn 2004). Taking factors such as poor education and unemployment
part in art projects, for example, is considered to can increase the risk of mental health problems
promote social outcomes, by helping to tackle (Fryers et al 2001, Rogers and Pilgrim 2003).
social exclusion and by building social capital Mental health promotion campaigns warn that
(Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) 2004). The expression one in four of the population will experience mental
of creativity can also have a positive effect on health problems (Department of Health (DH) 1999)
wellbeing because it can be a shared experience but, as a rule, they do not refer specifically to
(White 2006). socioeconomic factors or the unequal distribution of
Community art projects can address some of the such problems across social classes. Nevertheless, the
broader determinants of poorer mental health, such highest rates of mental health problems occur among
as deprivation and social isolation, and they can help the most deprived social groups (Wilkinson 2005).
to promote factors that have a positive effect on The concepts of social exclusion and social capital
emotional health, such as good social networks and were key in the formation of the SEU (Harper 2001,
The artwork and costumes
support (White 2006, Stickley and Duncan 2007). Harper and Kelly 2003). Sayce (2001) described social
(main picture) created by the This article reports the findings of a qualitative exclusion as a set of interlocking and compounding
young people’s art group were study of the experiences of four young people problems of impairment, discrimination and
used in a carnival troupe at
the annual Nottingham-wide
who were permanently excluded from school and diminished social role, and a lack of economic
Caribbean carnival subsequently took part in a community art project. and social participation. Social capital is defined

18 March 2010 | Volume 13 | Number 6 MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICE

While the young people engaged with their local
community, they referred more frequently to
their experiences of engaging with one another

‘The participants shared the view that the Data collection Unstructured interviews were
conducted with participants in the local community,
experience had given them the opportunity using a broad opening question: ‘Tell me about your
experience of taking part in the art project.’ This
to get involved in diverse activities’ was followed by further questions to elicit additional
information. The interviews lasted between 30
by Morrow (1999) as the contacts and group minutes and one hour, and were recorded digitally.
memberships that, through the accumulation of Data analysis Each interview was transcribed
exchanges, obligations and shared identities, provide verbatim and each transcript read twice. These
people with actual or potential support and access were then analysed and each sentence containing
to valued resources. significant statements was recorded on index cards.
The literature on social capital refers to ‘social Statements that were repeated or overlapped were
bonding’ – the social interactions of people in social written on the same index cards. Similar cards
groups, such as when young people engage with were grouped together under similar themes,
other young people – and ‘social bridging’, such as which were then collated into broader themes.
when young people engage with members of the This process was repeated until two main themes
wider community (McKenzie and Harpham 2006). were identified.
The purpose of the project described in this
article was to involve participants in a series of Findings
creative activities to give them a sense of belonging Two core themes emerged: personal experiences
and offer opportunities for self-expression. While and involvement. These are presented using direct
there has been much research into art activities quotations from the participants.
and mental health, much of it has focused on the
experiences of service users participating in arts Theme 1: personal experiences All the young
projects (Parr 2006, Stickley et al 2007). Far people talked about their experience of taking part in
less research has investigated projects seeking to the art project and how it had made them feel. Many
involve those whose socioeconomic circumstances positive statements were made in relation to their
suggest they have an increased risk of mental enjoyment and sense of achievement:
health problems. ■■ ‘[Producing art] just makes you feel really happy’
– Sarah.
The study ■■ ‘I enjoyed making my elephant’ – Laura.
Aim The aim was to explore excluded young ■■ ‘I thought [my picture] was wicked’ – Tom.
people’s experiences of taking part in a community ■■ ‘[Producing art] makes you feel good’ – James.
art project. Sarah spoke about ‘escaping’ when she engaged in
art activities, saying: ‘You can forget about things
Methodology The study’s methodology was when you’re painting.’ She also alluded to freedom:
informed by the theoretical framework associated ‘No one can tell you if it’s right or wrong; it’s just
with descriptive phenomenology, which requires art.’ Tom talked about a sense of freedom too. ‘Just
individuals to interpret their experiences and how draw what you feel like drawing,’ he said.
they express themselves (LoBiondo-Wood and However, while the participants generally made
Haber 2002). positive statements about their feelings, Tom and
James were sceptical of the project:
Ethical considerations Approval to conduct the ■■ ‘It’s like a waste of my time. I want to be passing
study was sought from the relevant research ethics my tests’ – Tom.
committee. All participants were fully informed and ■■ ‘Some sequins fell off and I’m not doing it again
consented to take part. For those aged under 16 because that’s just wasting my time’ – James.
years, parental consent was gained. Pseudonyms are Furthermore, Tom stated: ‘I’d rather be doing sport
used in presenting the findings. or something. I’m never going to be an artist.’
However, the participants shared the view that
Participants The inclusion criteria for the study the experience of taking part had given them the
were young people taking part in the community opportunity to get involved in diverse activities
art project. There were 12 youngsters in the group, following exclusion from school.
four of whom agreed to be interviewed for the study. ■■ ‘[The arts project was] a new experience’ – Sarah.
These were two males, aged 15 and 16 years, and ■■ ‘There are loads of experiences [in the art
two females, aged 14 and 15 years. project’ – Laura.

20 March 2010 | Volume 13 | Number 6 MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICE


■■ ‘I’ve had the chance to do loads of things’ – Tom. James spoke of becoming more familiar with
Sarah and Laura said that finishing the project people in the local community and feeling more
would feel strange: secure, ‘you’re safe to be with each other’.
■■ ‘It’ll be weird not doing it. It gives us something to Despite their apprehension about their
do on a Wednesday’ – Sarah. involvement in the project, Tom and James felt that
Both expressed a wish to take part in another project: by attending the carnival they were supporting their
■■ ‘I will most probably do [another project]’ – Laura. local community. However, experiences of engaging
■■ ‘I would like to do it again’ – Sarah. with members of the wider community were
However, Sarah reflected: ‘I don’t really know discussed significantly less frequently than that of
of that many [other projects].’ Moreover, all the their experience of engaging with their peers.
young people were able to describe the sense of
achievement they had derived. Discussion
■■ ‘When you’ve painted something you realise that Meaningful activity The link between art and
you’ve done something constructive’ – Sarah. wellbeing is the subject of much literature
■■ ‘[I am] proud of myself [for taking part]’ – Laura. (Matarasso 1997, Jermyn 2004, Staricoff 2004).
■■ ‘[Completing artwork] makes me feel proud’ – The benefits communicated by the young people
James. who took part in the project have been recognised in
■■ ‘I got the best design out of the whole class because other research: they include enjoyment (Coulson and
everyone thought it was really good’ – Tom. Stickley 2006), a sense of achievement (Jermyn 2004)
Sarah and James spoke of sharing their achievement and building relationships with others (Parr 2006).
with others: However, the young people did not discuss
■■ ‘You can take [the artwork] home to show it confidence and self-esteem explicitly, which
to everyone’ – Sarah. was interesting in light of the relevant literature
■■ ‘I get to keep [the artwork] and show people what that refers to these outcomes frequently (Matarasso
I’ve done’ – James. 1997, Jermyn 2004). This may suggest that the
potential benefits, such as raised self-esteem and
Theme 2: involvement All four participants spoke confidence, are more complex than those conveyed
about their involvement, and their perceptions of in these studies.
other people’s involvement, in the project. Sarah and Stickley et al (2007) ask how sustainable such
Laura felt particularly involved and considered that feelings are. The young people associated benefits
the others were having the same experience. such as a sense of achievement with feeling good
■■ ‘I think most people are enjoying it’ – Sarah. and increased self-confidence, and one must
■■ ‘I think most people that come here are taking consider how great an impact this association
part’ – Laura. could have on their lives. Moreover, Stickley et al
However, James and Tom did not feel that they were draw attention to the ethics of such short-term
particularly involved in the project. projects. Research promotes creative activities and
■■ ‘I’m involved, but not really’ – James. provides participants with something meaningful to
■■ ‘I didn’t get involved in it at all’ – Tom. do (Stickley and Duncan 2007), which can nurture
The boys felt that the girls were more involved in in them a sense of achievement. However, these
the project than they were. James said that ‘girls like opportunities can be lost when the creative activities
to dance, boys don’t like to dance’, and ‘most of the come to an end, raising the question of whether it
girls are talking about it, but the boys aren’t’. is ethical to provide such activities in the first place.
Participants also talked about the inclusive nature This question is particularly relevant given that
of the project and how it had connected them to reports on young people and social exclusion make
people in their local community. it clear that adverse outcomes are associated with
■■ ‘Lots of people in the community are coming school exclusion (SEU 2000). It is possible, therefore,
along to join in. It’s something that’s brought lots that the removal of these meaningful activities can
of people together. It’s like a different variety of reaffirm in young people the sense of hopelessness
people: boys, girls and young children’ – Sarah, and abandonment that they may already feel as a
who also communicated her hopes: result of being excluded from school.
■■ ‘Hoping it all goes well and it doesn’t rain or
anything. Hoping everyone has a good time, Researching art and wellbeing It is recognised
a good day [at the Nottingham carnival].’ that scientific evidence is often beyond the reach
Laura spoke of how ‘excited’ she felt about the of researchers into art and health projects (Stickley
carnival and said that ‘everyone will be there’. 2007). While there is evidence that involvement in art

MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICE March 2010 | Volume 13 | Number 6 21


can improve personal and social outcomes, much of 2006). These findings are significant because the
it is based on the voluntary testimony of participants relationship between healthy development and
and consequently lacks validity (Jermyn 2001, wellbeing is intrinsically linked to the senses of
Macnaughton et al 2005). belonging and meaning within larger social and
In 2006, the Policy Exchange published a community groups (Baumeister and Leary 1995).
collection of papers in which the Arts Council For example, Flanagan (2003) has found, in
England (ACE) was condemned for apparently an extensive study of youth civic engagement,
propagating the notion that art can reduce social that communities are arenas for developing
exclusion, improve health and, in short, transform ‘transcendent selves’ and for valuing communal
society (Mirza 2006). Despite this criticism, the and civic life. Moreover, although social capital
following year ACE (2007) and the DH (2007) themes are less developmental in character, they
published two statutory documents that make share the assumption that wellbeing is dependent
enthusiastic claims about the art and health agenda. on community connectedness and participation
The DH document asserts that it has an important (Whitlock 2007).
leadership role to play in creating an environment While the young people in this study engaged
in which art and health can prosper by promoting, with their local community, they referred more
developing and supporting art and health, while the frequently to their experiences of engaging with
ACE (2007) paper makes clear its aim to integrate art one another, highlighting the difference between
into mainstream health strategy and policy. concepts of social bonding and social bridging. This
These publications offer evidence of how art can finding is similar to that of Parr’s (2006) study, in
improve clinical and therapeutic outcomes, although which participants in an art and wellbeing project
Stickley (2007) asserts that the publications lack were found to have reflected mainly on their sense
substance and that the art and health agenda has of belonging in the art group, rather than on their
been subject to too much recycling of information. sense of connectedness with wider society.
This suggests that tension can arise when art is While some authors have viewed social bonding
regarded simply as a tool to fulfil policy objectives as isolating because it restricts the formation of
and deliver outcomes (Macnaughton et al 2005). wider social bridging (Campbell et al 1999, McKenzie
and Harpham 2006), it is important to consider the
Individuality of projects The findings suggest that opportunities that young people have to bond with
the project appealed more to the girls than the their peers. Studies have found that schools form
boys and highlights the need for people engaged in important communities for young people, and the
implementing such projects to consider carefully time they spend with friends at school is linked to
those whom they attempt to engage. their sense of belonging (Morrow 2001, 2004).
In a report on neighbourhood renewal (SEU 1998), As a result, if the social networks that young
for example, the potential use of sports activities in people develop in school are considered to constitute
tackling social exclusion and building social capital in social bonding, those who are excluded from
deprived areas is recognised. Yet, the focus of much school may lack a sense of belonging. Their
literature and policy is on art and wellbeing, rather involvement in community art projects can be
than sport and wellbeing (Jermyn 2004, DH 2007), considered vital in providing them with opportunities
and there has been little research into the personal to engage with one another, and may replace that lost
and wider social benefits of sport. sense of belonging.
Furthermore, the findings of the study highlight
variations in how individuals experience such Study limitations It is important to recognise
activities. Everitt and Hamilton (2003) observed that the aim of this study was to explore a
five community art projects and found that simple community art project by focusing on its unique
engagement in art activities does not always lead circumstances, dynamics and complexities.
to personal gain. Rather, it is how projects are To this end, the sample size was deliberately small
delivered, the environment in which they take place so participants’ experiences could be explored in
and the conversations that occur that provide the depth (Bowling 2002).
intermediate indicators of perceived benefits. It should be recognised, however, that the small
sample size limits the study and raises questions
Social bonding and bridging There is a wealth about whether the findings are applicable to similar
of evidence to suggest that art projects can build projects. It is also necessary to consider the influence
community cohesion and social capital through the researcher may have had on participants, and the
shared artistic expression (Parr 2006, White possibility that they wanted to please the researcher.

22 March 2010 | Volume 13 | Number 6 MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICE


Conclusion This study has identified the personal and

If community art and health projects are to social benefits of art, including enjoyment,
promote inclusion, social capital and reintegration, achievement, interacting with peers and engaging
opportunities for such projects must be developed with the wider community. These benefits reflect
away from statutory services to engender a sense of the hopeful nature of artistic expression and
social integration. This is significant because, while the potential that community art projects have The article has been checked
diagnosis of a mental health problem and being seen in promoting feelings of self-worth and a sense using antiplagiarism software

as a ‘service user’ may secure access to such projects of belonging. For author guidelines visit
for many people, they also carry the potential for The findings of the project reveal an interesting the Mental Health Practice
some individual of being labelled, stigmatised and relationship between the employees’ enthusiasm home page at www.
discriminated against (Sayce 2000). for community arts projects and the young people’s For related articles visit our
Furthermore, while there is evidence that experience of an art project at a grass-roots online archive and search using
the government is committed to mental health level. This reflects the uniqueness of individual the keywords

promotion (DH 1999, 2004), the money available projects in terms of how they are delivered and the Acknowledgements
for implementing its strategies is, understandably, relationships they encompass. The Young People’s art
allocated to statutory services. As a result, However, while the relationship between art and project featured in this article
was delivered by City Arts in
community art and health projects are often health remains inconclusive and subject to criticism, Nottingham
funded from arts budgets and those who run there continues to be growing interest in the area
community-based, non-statutory art projects are and in particular in the role of art in community Rachel Hadland is staff nurse,
Mildred Creak Unit, Great
often keen to work with statutory services. development. Ormond Street Hospital
In the same way, mental health nurses must This study reflects the importance of exploring
recognise the importance of joined-up working community art projects at grass-roots level and Theodore Stickley is associate
professor of mental health,
with non-statutory services to promote the social the relevance of hearing the voices of those who School of Nursing, University
inclusion of the individuals with whom they work. participate in such projects. of Nottingham

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