‘Happy hookers’: how prescribing creativity might help wellbeing

Self and wellbeing

Mental health professionals are exploring the benefits of creative hobbies – and referring their patients accordingly

Jennifer Macey

During press conferences signalling rising Covid-19 case numbers last week, a list of projects began percolating in my mind. The Peppermint pocket skirt, a Wattlebird jumpsuit, definitely the Hudson tracksuit pants.

Now locked down, my girls grab the whiteboard from my home office, rub out ‘Freelance Projects 2021’ and write a list for the school holidays; T-shirt decorating, play pirates, paint crazy things, bake a cake. I add sewing.

Sewing is my hope and my balm for this lockdown. I’ve only been doing it for couple of years, but something happens after hours spent stitching, cutting fabric and puzzling over patterns – I feel calmer and happier. I’m not good, I have to concentrate hard. But that’s the point. It stops intrusive thoughts about Delta strains and cancelled work in a way that yoga or meditation never quite achieve.

Dr Pippa Burns is a medical researcher at the University of Wollongong, and her paper Happy Hookers might explain why I feel this way. It examined the effects of crocheting on wellbeing. After surveying more than 8,000 crocheters, Burns found that 89.5% of respondents reported the practice made them feel calmer, while 82% felt happier.

The findings don’t surprise Burns, who also crochets. “It’s very mindful because you’re counting stitches. You’re not thinking about who said what at work or what you need to do tomorrow. You’re just focused on what you’re creating.”

So if crocheting and sewing is so good for our mood, why don’t doctors prescribe it, particularly at this time when Australians are experiencing increasing mental distress? Well, some GPs already are.

It’s one aspect of a practice called social prescribing and has enthusiastic support in the UK and Germany, where more than half of GPs refer patients with a range of social, emotional, or financial issues to community services.

The take up of social prescribing in Australia has been slower, despite being endorsed by two peak bodies: the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Consumers Health Forum of Australia.

“It’s about society viewing health more holistically,’’ says Burns. “You don’t just have to have clinical or pharmacological interventions. You can also have creative interventions that could be just as important to someone’s recovery.”

Burns formed part of a steering group along with a GP and psychologist, to consult on the design of an eight-week program called ‘Creativity on Prescription’ devised by Makeshift, a social enterprise based in the Illawarra, south of Sydney. Some local GPs in the area are now referring their patients to the course.

On the course, participants get to test drive a new creative activity weekly – including dancing, painting and gardening – to help manage anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. The workshops are taught by a roster of professionals including author Helena Fox and singer/songwriter Elana Stone. The course is available for NDIS recipients, and free to anyone on a NSW workers compensation claim who has been referred by a psychologist or a GP, but anyone can register.

Since Covid, the workshops are online, a big box of materials is posted out to participants and they can access video tutorials, self-paced activities along with weekly zoom catch-ups.

Makeshift’s co-founder Caitlin Marshall is a trained social worker, but she stresses the program is different to art therapy, which uses art or music to help people work through trauma. The focus here is on learning and developing a creative habit.

“People experience a different version of themselves. And that’s really important for personal change to happen,” she says. “Understanding [that] I can be musical and I’m going to be curious about that. That’s a real motivator to keep doing something … People have felt like themselves again.”

The biggest obstacle is that many people say they’re not artistic or creative enough, but Marshall says you don’t have to be good at something to gain mental health benefits.

“You can go for a run and be really crappy at running and you’re still going to get the benefit of that. Creative practices give us the same thing.” While Marshall says there is far more research to be done in the space, she points to a small US study using a saliva test before and after art making, which found that three quarters of participants had reduced cortisol levels after doing simple collages and drawing.

“I can’t draw” is a phrase that Marcelo Baez, a Wollongong based cartoonist and illustrator has heard often. He teaches the drawing component of the Makeshift class and tries to reconnect drawing to play. He says what the drawings look like is not as important as accessing “that joy that you used to have when you’re a child and went a bit silly on the paper”.

After 20 years seeking professional support to treat depression following significant abuse in childhood, Monica* participated in the pilot workers compensation program. After doing the ‘Creativity on Prescription’ course, she developed a daily writing and drawing habit. To her, it feels like a breakthrough.

“This program was by far the most helpful. I’m talking 20 years versus eight weeks,” she said. Monica believes it was the strategies combined with the sense of community. “By the end of it, I felt like I could conquer the world … the program had started me on a journey of tapping into my creative potential and believing in myself enough that I could actually, you know, create something meaningful to this life.”

The Black Dog Institute is conducting its own study into social prescribing. Clients of their depression clinic take part in arts on prescription workshops with Art Gallery of NSW. Preliminary findings showed significant increases in mental health and wellbeing and in feelings of social inclusion. The institute’s lead researcher Professor Katherine Boydell believes social prescribing could play a big role in improving health outcomes, and even reducing care costs.

However, Burns says this requires a more targeted education campaign, so that GPs and the broader public understand the benefits of social prescribing.

Burns is still crocheting for her own wellbeing, especially lately when life has been a bit stressful, “there’s been a lot of dishcloths and scarves recently”. Her next study? On the positive health effects of sewing.

*Name has been changed













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