Prescribe culture

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Can exploring heritage and culture improve your mental wellbeing? Ruthanne Baxter, Museums Services Manager, and creator of the University’s Prescribe Culture project certainly thinks so.

“Prescribe Culture is a heritage-based, cultural and social prescribing initiative developed to broaden the choice of non-clinical support options for those who are struggling with their sense of connection and mental wellbeing,” explains Ruthanne. The service, available to all staff and students, offers a range of programmes online and in-person, utilising the power of heritage to increase a sense of connection and inspire awe. The offering includes the award-winning Take 30 Together Virtual (T30TV) a series of digital tours and events exploring museums and heritage centres across the world.

“Cultural and social prescribing, while they have both been around in the UK for at least a decade, are still not greatly known about,” says Ruthanne, but back in 2017 she saw potential to help struggling staff and students improve their mental wellbeing.

After seeing the huge demand on the University’s Counselling Service, Ruthanne was struck with an idea when she read an article on the effects of social prescribing: “Demand for the University Counselling Service had increased by 22 per cent in the 2017/18 academic year.  At exactly this time, I came across an article on the difference social prescribing was making to the mental wellbeing of older people living in rural Yorkshire and the knock-on effect this had in reductions of appointments with GPs.

“I wondered if developing support for a sense of connection, through heritage and culture, for the students here, could have a similar impact and thus, go a tiny way to supporting our colleagues,” she continues.

Ruthanne was keen to involve voices and expertise from across the University: “In September 2018, I invited Andy Shanks, Alex Williams, Nina Talbot, Dr John Gillies, Dr John Ennis, Laura Beattie and the then EUSA Welfare Officer to join the Prescribe Culture Steering Group in order to ensure input from the referral partners and the voice of the student was involved from the very outset.

“After a couple of consultation focus groups with students aiming to make the programmes as accessible as possible and as effective as possible, the pilot Programme 6 series and Take 30 booklet came into play October to December 2019,” she continues.

The programmes were a big success, leading Ruthanne to work on putting together a more permanent offering.

Unsurprisingly, the arrival of the pandemic meant plans had to be changed: “Unfortunately, just as I was working on developing the resources for improving and running Programme 6 and Take 30 booklets again, the Coronavirus pandemic hit.

“However, that has resulted in the development of successful online offers, T30TV and Handwriting with Heritage for Wellbeing, both open to staff, students and the wider community.”

T30TV tours run every Wednesday, 1pm to 2pm, unless the tour is at an international destination where the time of the session needs to change. The sessions are inspired by the truly diverse world of heritage and includes visits of museums, heritage sites and collections across the world but also unusual sessions such as the heritage of the honeybee, or lavender. Guest Guides will take you through the venues, from Edinburgh Castle to the Shangri La Museum, exploring characters, events and stories.

Also available is Programme 6, a series of small group workshops for around 12 people. Every session begins with an exploration of a heritage object, site or archive and finishes with a creative hands-on activity which could be anything from book-binding to 3D scanning, street photography to creative writing or soap-carving. During lockdown, these converted to online but the hope is to have Programme 6 available as in-person again early in 2022, as well as an online option.

Deborah Shaw, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Science, found Programme 6 incredibly enjoyable and a good way to safeguard her mental health: “I started the Prescribe Culture course to understand better how it could help with our wellbeing and found the experience so worthwhile.

“Ruthanne’s enthusiasm was infectious as she led us through each session,” she continues. “Each week I learnt a bit of history, had some interesting conversations with fellow participants from all over the world, and importantly found a calm spot within a busy week.”

So what was Deborah’s highlight? “The first session on Patrick Geddes. Partly because of his connection to Edinburgh, partly because of his vision in understanding the importance of the environment and space, particularly to those living in slums, but also because this session took us to New York and we had a New Yorker in our group so it was a great way to share our thoughts and feel more connected.”

Deborah is keen to stress how beneficial she has found the whole thing: “Prescribe Culture is for anyone and everyone and a very productive way to relax and re-focus our minds. I didn’t know initially if I could commit to the whole six weeks but each session was only an hour, there was no preparation and no expectations. And after the first session, it didn’t feel like an obligation but a get-together to explore our heritage.”

This is exactly what Ruthanne set out to achieve with the service. The focus is very much on the wellbeing of the community: “Prescribe Culture is not a numbers game, so the joy for me is hearing from the staff or student participant, the positive impact it has made on the individual and any further beneficial actions they have taken as a result of the support Prescribe Culture has given them.”

“It is also a privilege to work with the very committed and open-minded referral partners who were, and remain, supportive and positive about the role of Prescribe Culture in their work,” she continues.

The project is continuing to grow in popularity, supporting staff and students alike. For Ruthanne, this is a reflection on the community focus of the programmes: “Unlike the vast majority of activities for students and staff at the University, these programmes are not about learning or training but the purpose is simply to support mental wellbeing and connection, or reconnection, with the world around us and, in the case of social prescribing, others.”

You can find out more on the Prescribe Culture website.

Photography: Chris Close; Jim Stephenson; Paul Dodds