UnLonely in the Field: Cafritz Arts and Health Event

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Founder and director of the Foundation for Art & Healing (FAH), Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH keynoted an event in Washington DC entitled Arts and Health: The Loneliness Epidemic.  The November 14, 2019 program, which was co-sponsored by FAH, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, and the Greater Washington Community Foundation, brought together funders, health practitioners, educators, community activists, and artists to explore the role the arts can play in addressing loneliness in the community. Presented at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center (EDJCC) to a packed auditorium, the program included a panel discussion, the viewing of short films on loneliness and connection, and audience engagement through a haiku writing exercise. 

In his keynote, Dr. Nobel spoke about how loneliness has long been associated with mental health concerns like suicide, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, but in the last decade, there’s been an emergence of medical research also linking it to physical health conditions, correlated with a 30% increased risk of early mortality. He expressed an urgency to raise awareness about loneliness and its toxicity and to support programs with an arts focus that can mitigate loneliness for individuals and communities. 

“The arts have been used in a variety of ways to help people who are facing significant challenges, such as recovering from trauma or illness. But with the growing crisis of loneliness, there is an increased appreciation of how the arts and creative expression can help people feel more connected to themselves and to others. The arts have the power to engage people, activate them, and connect them around shared stories and experiences,” Dr. Nobel explained.

Jessica Plocher, Program Officer of The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, voiced a similar sentiment. “At the Cafritz Foundation, we firmly believe in the power of the arts to transform lives and communities. The arts bring us together in profound ways—and a growing body of research suggests that engaging with art can improve our well-being. The arts can not only move us past the stigma of acknowledging the effect of social isolation but engaging in creative arts expression can reduce some of the adverse outcomes.” 

After showing several compelling short films from FAH’s UnLonely Film Festival, Dr. Nobel had the audience write haikus relating to creative experiences that made them feel better, asking for volunteers to share what they wrote. Then he opened the panel discussion. The panelists spoke about the pervasiveness of loneliness and how we, as a society, face real challenges in addressing this crisis. They shared their convictions that the arts can be part of the solution, but that it’s an uphill battle to make this notion commonly accepted.

Eliza Heppner, a Senior Advisor for AARP Foundation Programs, spoke about ways to determine whether a person could benefit from some kind of loneliness-related intervention. “The first step is identifying that someone is lonely. We ask people we serve to create a “friend inventory” and when people realize they don’t have many friends, we can speak about how they can become more engaged and get more support.”

Building on this theme, Moira McGuire, the Division Chief of Integrative Health and Wellness at Walter Reed, spoke of the responsibility we all share in alleviating loneliness. “It’s important to continuously think about ways that you can have an impact on others. For example, acknowledging people you don’t know: ‘I acknowledge you and I see you.’ It’s positive for both people involved. There’s mood elevation when you have a positive interaction with someone you don’t know.”

Using the arts to combat loneliness is a pathway all panelists embraced, but they acknowledged some of the inherent challenges. Maria Manuela Goyanes, Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company explained, “We are such a thinking society. Part of the challenge of making the case for the arts is that we are going to have to think about feelings—it’s hard to get to that place in our society.”  

All panelists agreed that it was important to broaden the tent of who participated in discussions about repositioning the arts as something that could improve well-being. Dr. Nobel concurred. “It’s important to recognize who is not around the table and find creative ways to invite them there.”

Jennie Smith-Peers, Director of Development and Communications from Iona Social Services, spoke about issues affecting older adults, the population that her organization serves, and why the arts matter.  “Older adults are invisible in our society. There are a lot of systems that keep older adults isolated. We have to support programs—and many of these exist through arts institutions—where older adults are seen for who they are and for their strengths.

A major takeaway from the event is that funding for the arts can also be funding for community health improvement. In the discussion that followed the panel, several funders and community activists engaged enthusiastically with each other, imagining the possibility for broader application of arts-based activities to improve health and wellbeing across a wide range of concerns, especially targeting vulnerable populations. 

As the program closed, Goyanes from the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, imparted some final words of advice to the audience: “Consider reaching out to someone who is on the outer periphery of your life. Take someone on an art date. Preach the gospel of the arts.”

By Bradley Riew, UnLonely Project Communications Team


The Foundation for Art & Healing