Visual art and mental health: A systematic review of the subjective wellbeing outcomes of engaging with visual arts for adults (“working-age”, 15-64 years) with diagnosed mental health conditions

Author(s):*Listed Alphabetically
Ball K, Daykin N, Dolan P, Grigsby Duffy L, John A, Julier G, Kay T, Lane J, Mansfield L, Meads C, Payne A, Tapson C, Testoni S, Tomlinson A, Victor C

Year of Publication:

What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Publication Type:


This review was carried out to examine the ‘subjective wellbeing’ (SWB) outcomes of engagement with the visual arts for adults with a background history of mental health conditions. SWB embraces both the positive and negative feelings that arise in individuals based on their view of the world, how they think about themselves and others, and what they do in the interactions and practices of everyday life.

Published studies from January 2007- April 2017 were studied, and their findings synthesised. Although limited high-quality evidence was found, case studies from the UK provided important and consistent findings. The review includes published findings based on data on/from 163 participants across four countries–Australia, Sweden, the UK, and the USA. The visual arts practices that featured in the studies included forms of painting or drawing, art appreciation with selected artforms, artmaking culminating in an exhibition, and more general creative and craft activities that included visual artefacts such as ceramics or sculpture.

Unpublished reports (grey literature) produced from January 2014-April 2017 by or for visual arts organisations were also included in the review’s scope. Participants in the evaluations were engaged in UK-based arts interventions, many via community arts or ‘Arts on Prescription’ interventions.

Overall, the evidence available in this review has shown that engagement in the visual arts for adults with mental health conditions can reduce reported levels of depression and anxiety; increase self-respect, self-worth and self-esteem; encourage and stimulate re-engagement with the wider, everyday social world; and support in participants a potential renegotiation of identity through practice-based forms of making or doing. The most effective ‘working ways to wellbeing’ are also confirmed in processes of implementation that ensure provision of secure safe-space and havens for interventions; that recognise the value of non-stigmatising settings; and that support and sustain collaborative facilitation of programmes and sessions.

Some negative dimensions of engagement with the visual arts were also identified, including stress and pressure felt to complete activities or commit to artmaking, and the very real fear that the end of an intervention would mean the return to a world of anxiety, decreasing confidence and social isolation.

Evidence Type: Systematic Review

Main Focus: Mental Health

Research Purpose: Discussion / Debate

Context: Community

Art Forms: Multi-Arts

Access Type: Free Download

APA Citation:

Tomlinson A., Lane J., Julier G., Grigsby-Duffy L., Payne A., Mansfield L., Kay T., John A., Meads C., Daykin N., Ball K., Tapson C., Dolan P., Testoni S., Victor, C. (2018) Visual art and mental health: A systematic review of the subjective wellbeing outcomes of engaging with visual arts for adults (“working-age”, 15-64 years) with diagnosed mental health conditions. London: What Works Centre for Wellbeing.