Simon Stephens, Issue 116/06, p4, 01.06.2016
We must help tackle mental health issues
The five-strong shortlist for this year’s Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year includes London’s Bethlem Museum of the Mind. In 2015, the museum moved to a refurbished building at the heart of Bethlem Royal Hospital, which was founded in 1247, making it the UK’s oldest psychiatric institution.

With one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year, according to the charity Mind, it is an important issue for society to address. Many museums are doing just that, as part of an increasing focus on the health and wellbeing agenda.

There are many benefits to carrying out this kind of work in museums, some of which have been outlined by a recent report into the work of the Bethlem Art & History Collections Trust.

Through exhibitions, displays and other activities, museums can contribute to a greater public understanding of mental illness. The report points to individuals experiencing mental illness and how they can help build hope and empowerment in others.

There are also more general benefits to visiting museums – the Happy Museum project has highlighted research that suggests social interaction is perhaps the single most important factor in distinguishing happy people from those who are merely “getting by”. For many people, a museum visit is not a solitary activity but a chance to spend time with family or meet up with friends.

There are many other benefits that museums can provide for those suffering from mental health issues. But this can be challenging work and, like many other health and wellbeing initiatives that the sector is involved in, partnerships are key.

As part of the health and wellbeing theme, a session at the Museums Association conference in Glasgow (7-9 November) will look at the psychotherapeutic potential of museums and the opportunities for collaborative working. And the next issue of Museums Journal will include a comment article by Victoria Northwood, the director of Bethlem Museum.

Our society needs to develop a greater awareness of mental health issues and provide more support for those people who are suffering from such problems. Museums are well placed to play an important role in this.