Creativity and innovation: Findings from the Mental Health Fellowships

From 2016 to 2019, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust ran the Mental Health Fellowships programme, funding individuals to travel abroad to learn more about how community-based solutions are being created in response to some of today’s most pressing mental health challenges.

The Mental Health Foundation was the expert partner in this programme, helping to shape its aims, select the successful candidates from hundreds of applicants and provide mentoring to the successful Churchill Fellows. In total, 59 Fellows were chosen to investigate best practices in 17 countries and bring back new evidence and ideas to create positive change in their profession, practice and communities in the UK. This is one of four briefings that distil the key findings from this rich body of learning and make recommendations for policy and practice in the UK. Each briefing focuses on an aspect of the Mental Health Fellowships’ overarching theme, ‘community-based solutions’, and an overview of the learning from this Fellowship can be found in the programme’s summative briefing.


This briefing on Creativity and Innovation brings together learning from six Fellows’ research in Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the USA and Australia, demonstrating how the creative arts and digital technological innovations are being used abroad to support people’s mental health effectively. The learning from this category is grouped into two main sections:

Section 1: How can the creative arts help?

Introduces the creative arts, provides several case studies and findings from two Fellows’ research and details good practice in integrating arts-based interventions into community settings.

Section 2: Harnessing the potential of digital technology

Focuses on the growing influence of digital technology in supporting people’s mental health, provides several case studies and findings from four Fellows’ research, and details how various technologies are being used abroad.

Why creativity and innovation?

Not so long ago, people’s mental health was treated in settings known as asylums, where, with some exceptions, caring for people often meant the use of containment, padded cells and straitjackets.

Even after the formation of the NHS in 1948, there were still more than 100 asylums operating in England until the efforts of successive governments led to the old asylums being abandoned and replaced with care in the community and more appropriate models of in-patient care, such as the mental health hospitals that exist today.

This change signified the beginning of a radical transformation in how we, as a society, think about and respond to mental ill-health. The past 30 years have seen a community-based care model largely replacing the acute and long-term care provided by in-patient settings, with an increasing focus on prevention and early intervention, as opposed to treatment further down the line.

Whilst there are, of course, many reasons for such a radical transformation, one thing is certain: we would not be where we are today without the vital contribution that creative approaches and innovative thinking have played in helping to find appropriate solutions to the wide range of challenges that our mental health system faced. The transformation we have experienced over the last 70 years has, to some extent, been driven by a determination and will, on behalf of researchers, policymakers and the general public, to think differently about mental health and find innovative solutions and ways of doing things that better serve and protect the mental health and human rights of people living in the UK. Without this, such progress would not have been possible.

There is, however, still more to do. Far too many people with mental health problems do not receive effective and timely treatment. Figures from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey found that six out of ten people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are not receiving any current medication or treatment (59.2%); similarly, nearly one in five people with a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia, are not receiving treatment. The number of people experiencing common mental health problems is also increasing. Almost one-fifth (18.9%) of 16-64-year-olds surveyed in England in 2014 met the criteria for a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression. This compares to 17.6% in 2007 and 15.5% in 1993.

Such statistics are clearly troubling, and the Fellows’ work, therefore, comes at a time when further creativity and innovation are needed if we are to find solutions to the most pressing problems our current system faces. In these difficult times, both the creative arts and digital technologies provide an opportunity in quite different ways for much-needed alternative approaches for supporting people’s mental health, offering a range of different options for providing timely and accessible care and ensuring a greater focus on prevention and earlier intervention.

Seventy years ago, it may have been difficult to imagine a world where an individual could log on to a mobile phone application and receive evidence-based support for their mental health. Given the pace of change, how we might support people’s mental health in another 70 years is difficult to imagine. The opportunities are great, and the role of creativity and innovation in helping us to make the most of these will be vital.

Was this content useful?