Montreal doctors to prescribe art museum visits

According to creators of the initiative art stimulates neural activity and increase cortisol and serotonin levels

Photo: EPA A man looks at two works by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer at the Metropolitian Museum of Art in New York

Laughter may be the best medicine, but culture works wonders for your mental and physical health as well. That’s the thinking driving a new initiative in Montreal, Canada, where doctors will be able suggest unusual course of treatment, prescribing free art museum visits to patients with a range of ailments, from depression to diabetes to chronic illnesses.

“In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century,” predicts Nathalie Bondil, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director general, in the local Montreal Gazette.

This is not the first time the innovative institution is focusing on art and wellness. It created The Art Hive, a community studio supervised by an art therapist where visitors can create themselves, and programming that promotes well-being through art, as well as research collaborations with physicians on the health benefits of museum visits, and a medical consultation room.

Now, it’s joining forces with Medecins Francophones du Canada, an association of French-speaking doctors, to allow member physicians to prescribe art as therapy.

“There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health. It increases our level of cortisol and our level of serotonin. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being,” Helene Boyer, vice president of the medical association, explained to the Gazette.

The doctor notes that art has a similar positive effect on people as exercise, saying, “Since the ’80s we’ve been prescribing exercise for our patients because we know exercise increases exactly the same hormones.” 

In view of this, Boyer believes museum visits can improve wellness in patients of all ages and offers an alternative to prescribing physical activity for those who might find exercise risky, such as the elderly or infirm patients. Boyer also points out that art can help those who suffer both physical and mental illnesses.

“People tend to think this is only good for mental health issues. That it’s for people who’re depressed or who have psychological problems. But that’s not the case. It’s good for patients with diabetes, for patients in palliative care, for people with chronic illness,” Boyer stresses. 

The initiative, said to be the first of its kind, kicks off a one-year pilot program on 1 November. The museum will allow doctors to prescribe 50 free visits a year for a patient and caregivers. Each prescription will allow entry for up to two adults and two children age 17 or under. In this way, the culture prescription could be therapeutic not only for those who are already suffering due to illness, but also as preventative care for visitors who accompany patients.

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