A survey of Northern Rivers residents conducted by five fourth-year medical students from the University of Western Sydney has highlighted the value of creating art and accessing arts activities to promote mental wellbeing.
The benefits of arts activities for health and wellbeing are well documented. The aim of this local study was to gauge the effect of COVID-19 lockdowns, and the subsequent loss of access to arts activities on mental health and wellbeing.
The research topic was developed by University Centre for Rural Health (Lismore) Research Lead Dr Natalie Edmiston, with the assistance of Dr Andrew Binns and Dr Tien Khoo. Students Ruban Sivakumar, Rory Sinclair, Jeyvin Nandakumaran, Tushar Vashisht and Sanju Sonnadara created the online survey especially for people living in Northern NSW.
The 10-minute online survey was made up of multiple-choice questions and opportunities for free text responses. Dr Edmiston said 131 people over 18 years of age responded, with 69 responses deemed sufficient for analysis, although not all were included in all analyses. Most respondents were females in the 55 to 64 years age range and took the survey during August and September 2021 during a prolonged lockdown.
The students used the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10) to explore the association between restrictions in access to arts activities and people’s wellbeing. They used a scale of 1 to 10 to represent the level of restrictions people experienced, with 0 being not at all restricted and 10 being completely restricted. The students also collected demographic data.
The students worked with local arts organisations, with help from Dr Binns, to distribute the survey and recruit respondents. Once the survey closed, they extracted and analysed the data with assistance from Dr Khoo.
Dr Edmiston said almost all respondents reported a big reduction in their access to the arts, with a mean score of 7.18 on the 0 to 10 scale.
‘The most significant finding was a clear linear relationship between reduced access and wellbeing. As people were more impacted by lockdown restrictions they had higher levels of psychological distress.
‘The other key finding was around community connectedness. The more isolated people were, the higher levels of distress they felt.’
Dr Edmiston said the qualitative analysis of the free text responses identified two main themes:
- a) The reduction in arts access and the associated psychological distress was mediated through a sense of existential crisis about the future.
- b) The reduction in socialising with friends and fellow arts enthusiasts was associated with a sense of isolation which impacted on psychological well being.
Dr Edmiston said the research showed that those normally actively engaged with the arts, described ‘a loss of sense of self’ when they weren’t able to access arts activities, as well as an inability to maintain hopes and plans for the future.
‘In conclusion, the main finding was that psychological distress was associated with a reduction in access to arts activities as a result of the Covid lockdowns in 2021. But after the floods, we are now faced with the same situation - where arts organisations aren’t available for the community.
‘It’s important that the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation prioritise a return of arts organisations within our community as a significant opportunity for social connection and the provision of psychological well being,’ she added.
GPs and health practitioners who wish to pursue a research topic of their choice are invited to express interest in being involved in research projects with Doctor of Medicine students through the University Centre for Rural Health.
The Doctor of Medicine (MD) is a degree that leads to a career in medicine.
MD Students from both the University of Sydney and the University of Western Sydney have the opportunity to be involved with research through the University Centre for Rural Health, Lismore, supported by local researchers.