Actor Stephen Fry on the power of art to overcome mental health conditions

PUBLISHED: 13:08 26 November 2018 | UPDATED: 15:57 26 November 2018

Stephen Fry with Jennifer French and Peter MacRae from the East London NHS Foundation Trust. Picture: ELFT

Stephen Fry with Jennifer French and Peter MacRae from the East London NHS Foundation Trust. Picture: ELFT


Stephen Fry has spoken out about the use of arts in treating mental health.

Stephen Fry speaking at the conference. Picture: ELFTStephen Fry speaking at the conference. Picture: ELFT

The actor and comedian, who has bipolar disorder, spoke at the PsychArt conference to promote the idea.

At Friday’s event, backed by the East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFT), he said the rate of self-harm in young people was hard to understand compared to what he saw as non-existent problem when he was a pupil.

He also commented on the place of art in people’s’ lives, saying: “Art is like, for example, love or wine.

“Sex and calorific intake are necessary to human existence and to the existence of our species and to new generations.

“Love and wine are not necessary. And yet, for most of us, life would be insufferable without either of those things.”

Patient demand for and results from arts therapy have led ELFT, which covers Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham, to promote the treatment.

The trust’s efforts are shown in its sponsorship of the conference and the creation of a study known as ERA to better quantify the treatment’s effects.

So far, ELFT has had difficulty getting past compelling but anecdotal evidence.

According to consultant psychiatrist Peter MacRae, it is difficult to prove the impact “for something that is complex, heterogeneous and changes from one individual to the next”.

He added: “It’s very hard to evidence why that is so powerful for an individual.”

But Jennifer French, professional lead for arts therapies in the trust, said that she has seen a particularly low drop-out rate for the therapies.

“It’s the equivalent of bums on seats,” she said. “People come, they want to come, they stick it out.”

The ERA is a randomised controlled trial testing the effectiveness of three arts therapies compared to an existing alternative treatment.

According to Ms French, it is the biggest trial of of these techniques to date. Conclusions are expected in the early 2020s.

Mr MacRae acknowledged art therapy will not work for everyone but added: “For a lot of people, their passion is art and this is a way for them to manage their mental health through something they care about.”

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