Project wins funding to tackle depression through arts

A pioneering project led by Edge Hill University and developed in collaboration with the University of Salford, which uses the arts to tackle depression, has been awarded new funding to scale up across the North West of England. 

Arts for the Blues is a collaborative research project between artists, therapists, universities, NHS trusts and cultural institutions. It has been developed to address a vital need in the North West, which has high levels of mental health problems, exacerbated by economic conditions and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Now, the team behind the project has been awarded £145,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to build on these positive results. 

Currently, mental health provision predominantly focusses on talking-based therapies. However, this excludes many people for whom talking therapy is not a viable treatment; including those who struggle with verbal communication or don’t have a strong command of English. 

The high levels of drop-out from primary care mental health services (IAPT) – calculated at 63% by NHS Digital in 2021 – show that further options are needed, which is why Arts for the Blues has been developed.  By using a creative psychological therapy that encompasses movement, visual arts, drama, music, creative writing and talking, people can experience and express emotions, share with others, and develop useful techniques to use outside of the therapy. 

Over the last five years, the project has worked with hundreds of adults and children in schools and mental health services across the North West. Results from adults showed decrease in anxiety and an upturn in wellbeing. A pilot trial with 56 children suffering emotional or behavioural difficulties was similarly successful; 12 months after the intervention, there were sustained improvements in their quality of life, quality of sleep and overall wellbeing.

The AHRC funding boost will facilitate working with healthcare and cultural institutions in the region providing training to develop the skills to deliver the interventions themselves as well as co-produce a strategy of scaling up the Arts for the Blues model across the North West. 

Professor Vicky Karkou, Director for the Research Centre for Arts and Wellbeing at Edge Hill University, is the principal investigator and said of the news:

“Arts for the Blues has already shown how it can have a tremendous impact, using a new approach to tackle a massive problem. I’d like to thank AHRC for this support, which enables us to expand on this progress and improve even more people’s lives across the North West.” 

Dr Scott Thurston, Reader in English and Creative Writing at the University of Salford, and co-investigator on the project said:

“It was really refreshing that the AHRC recognises the impact of arts and culture, nature and other forms of community assets in addressing health inequalities and decided to focus this funding on scalability. We feel that Arts for the Blues has so much more to give to the North-West and can’t wait to find out how best to expand what we do.” 

Dr Joanna Omylinska-Thurston, Counselling Psychologist at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Trust and Lecturer in Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Salford, is also a co-investigator in this project and co-founder of Arts for the Blues. She said:

“I’m particularly interested in bringing Arts for the Blues to Improving Access to Psychological Psychotherapies (IAPT), to offer clients a wider choice of treatments in order to address significant health inequalities in the region. Clients and staff in the NHS ask for creative interventions and I am delighted we received funding from AHRC to offer Arts for the Blues to them. This sounds really exciting and I look forward to enabling this across the North West.”

Edge Hill’s Research Centre for Arts and Wellbeing has developed over the last decade from an active research group which has engaged in interdisciplinary research activities in the form of research projects, publications, events and masterclasses.

Release of a new Arts for the Blues publication!

The Arts for the Blues team are delighted to announce their third publication which presents the twelve session creative psychotherapy model for depression

This article details the approach taken by the team to inform the model and presents the eight key ingredients that underpin the therapy. 

Omylinska-Thurston, J., Karkou, V., Parsons, A.S., Nair, K., Haslam, S., Dubrow-Marshall,  L., Starkey, J., Thurston, S., Dudley-Swarbrick, I. and Sharma, S (2020). Arts for the Blues: the development of a new evidence-based creative group psychotherapy for depression. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research


Depression affects many adults in the UK, often resulting in referral to primary care mental health services (e.g. improving access to psychological therapies, IAPT). CBT is the main modality for depression within IAPT, with other approaches offered in a limited capacity. Arts psychotherapies are rarely provided despite their attractiveness to clients. However, the recent dropout rate of 64% within IAPT suggests that clients’ needs are not being fully met. Therefore, in order to expand clients’ choice we developed a new creative psychological therapy integrating evidence‐based approaches with arts psychotherapies.


A three‐level approach was used: (a) thematic synthesis of client‐identified helpful factors in evidence‐based approaches for depression and in arts psychotherapies; (b) studio practice exploring Cochrane Review findings on arts psychotherapies for depression; (c) pilot workshops for clients with depression and therapists.

Findings and Discussion

Eight key ingredients for positive therapy outcomes were identified: encouraging active engagement, learning skills, developing relationships, expressing emotions, processing at a deeper level, gaining understanding, experimenting with different ways of being and integrating useful material. These ingredients were brought together as Arts for the Blues for clients with depression: a 12‐session evidence‐based pluralistic group psychotherapy integrating creative methods as well as talking therapy.


The evidence‐based foundation, creative content and pluralistic nature of this new approach aligned with eight client‐identified key ingredients for positive therapy outcomes make it a promising therapy option that can be adapted to individual therapy. Implications include consideration for NICE approval as an additional therapy for depression.

The Arts and COVID-19: A Time of Danger and Opportunity?

In this blog piece for the Institute of Social Responsibility, Professor Vicky Karkou prompts us to think about the revitalising and resourcing opportunities that the arts can offer us in this time of danger.

Darren Henley (2020), the CEO of the Arts Council, refers to the pandemic as: “the most serious challenge to (the) existence” (p.1) of the arts industry since the second world war”.

With the closure of all cinemas, theatres, live music venues, studios and dancing spaces, the arts industry in the UK faces a very uncertain future. So much so that Arts Council England have now redirected all its grant funds to an Emergency Response Fund for individuals and organisations who will be most at risk from the fall-out from the pandemic.

While this is happening, people in lockdown are faced with the need to connect through the arts in ways that have not been present before. From online dance, music and theatre performances (e.g. English National Ballet, Albert Royal Hall and Hampstead Theatre) to interactive sessions of how to draw and paint, how to dance or how to write poetry (see Royal Academy, Dancing Alone Together, Poetry Society); the internet is filling with options of things to ‘attend to’ or to ‘participate with’ whilst at home.

In addition to online options, dancing in the streets and in court yards, playing music in front of one’s house or singing from one’s window are new ways of connecting through the arts that are surfacing because of the pandemic; not only in the UK but all around the world.

At EHU’s Research Centre for Arts and Wellbeing we are undertaking research projects on the contribution of the arts to one’s wellbeing.  For example, through the ‘Arts for the Blues’ project (Karkou et al in preparation; Omylinska-Thurston et al 2019; Parsons et al 2019; Haslam et al 2019) we have found therapeutic benefits in the use of creativity and the arts for those struggling with loneliness and depression. In the current lockdown situation, this is relevant to all of us.

Remaining active through arts-making, learning new skills, or engaging in mindful (or not) indoors movement, all have the potential to vitalise us.  Finding opportunities to express feelings that are difficult to talk about through singing, drawing or moving in the presence of or with our loved ones over the phone, zoom or Skype, may be ways of strengthening and resourcing ourselves.

It may also be the time to stop, think, reflect and re-focus, making plans for new ways of being that are more relational and certainly more meaningful and rewarding.   It is possible, that with appropriately co-ordinated activities that combine research, public and personal initiatives, the arts can make contributions that offer re-vitalising experiences for all of us.  So let’s stay in – and dance!

 Professor Vicky Karkou is a Professor of Arts & Wellbeing at Edge Hill University and Director of the Research Centre. For more information about Vicky and her publications please visit