Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, considers how the arts can impact on not only our hearts and minds, but also our health and wellbeing.

I am a long-time fan of the Canadian author Margaret Atwood, whose often disturbing books have left me thinking about their meaning long after the final page has been read. Watching the recent, brilliant TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4 left many commentators discussing the likelihood of such a dystopian story becoming a reality as at times it felt truly disquieting. I first read the book almost 30 years ago and then it felt much more like science fiction than it does in 2017.

At RSPH, we have long believed in the power of the arts not only to influence our views on health but to directly improve health and wellbeing. There are many well evidenced programmes such as Singing for Health, Dance for Health, Museums on Prescription, to name but a very few, that are now being implemented in communities across the country.

Last year for our 160th anniversary we commissioned Gin Lane 2016, a modern version of the original Gin Lane by William Hogarth which showed, to the horror of the middle classes at the time, the results of cheap and readily available gin that created a public health crisis in 1751. For Gin Lane 2016, the portrayal of the issue of obesity and unhealthy high streets underlines the crisis in the public’s health today.

We did not expect our commissioned piece to change legislation as its original counterpart did (with the Gin Act 1751) but it did help to create new conversations, reach new audiences and highlight the importance of the social determinants of health and our unhealthy environments.

Literature, as we see with The Handmaid’s Tale, has the power to make us think differently about issues and to disrupt our complacency about the status quo. Over the past year, we have been delighted to work in partnership with the Health Foundation on the creation of a dystopian short story competition, Health: From Here to Where?

The competition invited authors to imagine the future consequences for society if current trends in the socio-economic determinants of health such as housing, access to employment and health inequalities are not tackled urgently. The sight of the remnants of the Grenfell tower block should propel us into action to address the factors that shape our unequal society.

The shortlisted stories were remarkable for their imagination, style and ability to shock the system and the three finalists were exceptional. The winner, What You Want by Tim Byrne, imagines a boy trying to do his homework with interactive adverts in the shape of a virtual dog selling him unhealthy snacks. As all the stories do, it highlights the differing worlds of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in sharp and scary definition.

The Surgery by Natasha Wynne invites us into a world where obesity has been criminalised and cheap, fake, backstreet weight loss surgery appears to be the only answer. The rationing of bariatric surgery by making access more difficult crossed my mind as I read this dystopian tale. Lis Maimaris’s Sky Park describes, often humorously, the contrasting worlds of two young girls who live in segregated environments, one obesogenic and the other ostensibly health promoting.

One feature of all our three finalists was the glimmer of hope for the future included at the end of each story which showed how we might pursue a different course of action. RSPH and the Health Foundation will be developing learning resources around the stories for use in schools as our prime focus is for young people to be able to interrogate the future and change its current path.

I hope that all those reading these stories will enjoy them but I also hope that it will lead to the understanding that prevention is about creating environments, social and economic conditions where everyone can optimise their health and wellbeing.

(Main picture taken from illustrations of 'What You Want' by Thomas Moore)