Wellbeing and Mental Health

Art and technology together can help tackle urban mental health

Therapeutic technologies can help boost mental health.

Therapeutic technologies can help boost mental health. Image: Samuel Austin/Unsplash

Anu Devi
Project Lead, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum
Fanyu Lin
Chief Executive Officer, Fluxus
Nick Colvin
CEO, CityBridge-LinkNYC
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  • Mental health is an ongoing global crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • Art and technology combined provide an effective new method of mental health treatment.
  • Digital art and apps can support mental well-being in urban environments.

Globally, one in eight people live with a mental health disorder, a major cause of years lived with disabilities (YLDs).

Mental health, according to the World Health Organization, is “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. [It] is a basic human right [and] crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.” Varying in complexity and severity, mental health conditions include panic and depressive disorders, stress, anxiety and much more.

Despite being an integral part of well-being and our ability to function, mental health continues to be neglected and under-served by our leaders and institutions. Public spending in low and middle-income countries, for instance, is less than $1 per capita, while high-income countries spend more than $80 per capita. These funds are mostly allocated to hospitals rather than other clinics supporting mental health.

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The economic cost of under-prioritizing mental health can be enormous. For instance, the global direct and indirect cost is predicted to be around $6 trillion by 2030. Such costs can be measured by workplace absenteeism and decreased productivity at work due to people experiencing mental health challenges. In the USA, the leading cause of absenteeism is depression, and in many developed countries, between 35-45% of absenteeism is a result of mental health conditions.

Mental health is under-prioritized across the world.
Mental health is under-prioritized across the world. Image: World Health Organization

In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions such as depression and anxiety increased by 25%, which worsened the challenges of current mental health programmes. Taking collaborative action to assess and treat such conditions can reduce the burden of disease and its costs. For instance: “Every $1 invested in scaling up treatment for common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4 in better health and ability to work.”

The underinvestment in mental health leads to financial consequences downstream.
The underinvestment in mental health leads to financial consequences downstream. Image: AP J Psychological Medicine

A powerful combination

The combination of art and technology can be powerful on the mental health front, creating a new system of healthcare and wellness provision to better people’s lives. While ongoing research still needs to prove their full potential, combining art and tech seems to be a sensible next step in the evolution of health promotion. Understanding their benefits to support health first requires looking at the changes taking place in each.

The adoption of digital technologies to support health became visible during the height of the pandemic. Online programmes, tele-health services, smartphone-based stress management apps, and e-guides to support non-specialists are examples of tools that enabled people all over the world to receive advice and care from home.

We live in a connected world. Digital technology seems to be more accessible, especially in remote parts of the world, compared to mental healthcare clinics. While this is concerning, access to online health services allows individuals and families to reach doctors and other practitioners more easily and lessen worries about travel and costs. Online care is a new type of experience and cannot replace the benefits of seeing a doctor in person. Nonetheless, access to such technology lowers some healthcare barriers by, for example, allowing instant feedback, reducing fear and stigma linked with finding help, and letting skilled health providers reach wider population groups.

In addition to digital technology, entities around the world, including governments, international organizations, health centres, policy advocates, artists and researchers, are recognizing the benefits of art. According to the World Health Organization: “Art can help us to emotionally navigate the journey of battling an illness or injury, to process difficult emotions in times of emergency and challenging events. The creation and enjoyment of the arts helps promote holistic wellness and can be a motivating factor in recovery. Including the arts in health care delivery has been shown to support positive clinical outcomes for patients.”

Research is beginning to show the positive connection between art, healing and health using visual art therapy and movement-based creative expressions for instance. Art interventions can elicit a physical response in the body: Making art is shown to lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream, while a survey of college students in China during the pandemic found that art engagement helped them to cope with anxiety and build resilience.

Several organizations are studying the outcomes of combining art and technology on health. A review of peer-reviewed literature by UK institutions showed that art therapists are increasingly using digital technology to provide art-making therapies to people, while research by the University of Vienna found that viewing art online can significantly lower negative mood, anxiety and loneliness. The HALE Lab and John Hopkins University are also conducting systematic studies to determine how virtual reality integration with art therapy can open new doors for addressing trauma, dementia and stress. These initiatives will contribute to advancing the role of art and technology in supporting health and well-being in the future.

Mental health wellness in the city

Public art such as murals can empower people and combat feelings of anxiety. Similarly, digital arts and therapies present new opportunities for the built environment to support health and well-being. Artists, architects, technologists and health professionals are disrupting the way art and technology is used outside of traditional medical services. These tools can also be available at home, the office and in urban spaces.

The hOMe meditative art is a web-based tool that combines art, sound and breathwork to create meditative experiences through online technologies: It can be accessed online privately, or displayed on screens in public spaces, and in the future, be available in the metaverse. hOMe was displayed at hundreds of locations across New York in December 2022 through a partnership with LinkNYC.

Founded on the belief that access to digital connectivity is a human right, LinkNYC is replacing outdated phone booths in New York with modern digital communications infrastructure, which provides free public wi-fi, and access to city and NGO services, including mental health support. LinkNYC estimates that the hOMe guided breathing exercise and meditation was viewed by the public more than 18 million times. This campaign is an example of how free access to connectivity and information can be provided through public spaces to raise awareness of tools to support health.

Similarly, MYND Centres are combining art programmes, preventive health practices and multi-sensory technologies at various locations and spaces. They create well-being spaces and immersion experiences within cities to fulfil certain parameters of healthy environments. Such initiatives can attract people’s interest and encourage them to take steps towards self-care. This can help change our surroundings to be conducive to good health, while contributing to local tourism and economic growth by attracting people.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

We must recognize that technology is not free from harm. It still faces governance challenges (i.e. privacy protection, cybercrime, affordability) and can lead to harmful behavioural patterns (i.e. addictions and self-isolation). With proper governance and good intentions, combining art and tech can support health and well-being. A greater understanding of how health-oriented digital arts and therapies can improve lives and create economic gains can set incentives for scaling up such interventions.

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Wellbeing and Mental HealthUrban Transformation
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