Depression affects 300 million people across the globe and is the leading cause of disability worldwide according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It costs the global economy $1 trillion every year but fewer than half of those affected receive any treatment.

So Denmark is trying a different approach: People suffering from depression are encouraged to take part in cultural activities. They call it Kulturvitaminer – “culture vitamins” – and it is being trialled in four cities.

As well as avoiding drugs and their side-effects, Kulturvitaminer does not require the direct involvement of clinical staff but can be run by trained lay people. It involves getting people together in small groups to experience everything from concerts to communal singing.

Image: World Health Organization

Reducing anxiety, building resilience

In Aalborg, where group singalongs are very much part of the program, they also have an arrangement with the local symphony orchestra for groups to attend rehearsals and concerts. Scientists say listening to music reduces stress and anxiety, both of which are associated with depression.

Participants also visit art galleries and museums and take part in creative activities which are proven to develop resilience. The program also includes story reading sessions and walks by the sea.

Those taking part say that, as well as the beneficial effects of individual activities, having something to focus on outside themselves helps their recovery. They report that being with other people who share similar experiences also really helps.

Supporters like Mads Duedahl of the health and culture administration in Aalborg say Kulturvitaminer is a cost-effective way to help people with depression. He says culture connects people and opens doors to new insights, which can create a renewed desire for life. It also helps help them get back into employment.

A global solution?

Art on prescription, the English language name for the therapy, started in the UK, more than 20 years ago. Sweden and Norway have also pioneered the approach and reported considerable success.

The WHO says that “behavioural interventions” like Kulturvitaminer have shown promising results around the world, especially in helping people suffering from depression in conflict zones.

The World Economic Forum has highlighted the need to end the stigma attached to mental health issues as a first step to enabling people to come forward to seek treatment. It urged employers to build healthier workplaces that support mental health.