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To mark the 175th anniversary of the first Medical Officer of Health (now known as a Director of Public Health) ADPH and the Local Government Association have commissioned a series of interviews exploring the varied and invaluable role of a DPH. Debbie Chase, Director of Public Health at Southampton City Council, wrote the below piece on 'The Role of Culture in Public Health': 


‘The cultural and creative industries are key partners’

Southampton has rich and varied cultural, creative and recreational sectors. From its maritime heritage and historic docks, the listed historic parks and medieval monuments to Southampton City Art Gallery with its nationally important collection and modern Premier League football club, the city has much to be proud of. Indeed, an indication of its strengths is embodied in the fact Southampton became the first city on the south coast to reach the final four in the prestigious UK City of Culture competition this year.

There are multiple benefits of having such a vibrant creative scene – none more so than in terms of public health. “The cultural, creative and recreational sectors are vital to me,” said Southampton Director of Public Health Dr Debbie Chase. “They are at the heart of our health and wellbeing strategy and how we plan to improve the health of the population.

“Firstly, having a strong cultural and creative sector helps boost an area’s economy. Southampton is often described as a gateway to the world. Millions of people pass through the ports, but we want people to stay and enjoy what the city has to offer too. We are aiming to grow tourism to the city and for that you need a strong cultural, retail and recreational mix. Like many areas, we have significant health inequalities. Economic growth and skills development can help address that if harnessed in the right way.

“Our City of Culture bid focused on the role and impact of culture to bring about transformational change and so we are building on that legacy. We are forming the Southampton Culture Trust, which aims to provide strategic leadership across culture, tourism, festivals and events. The bid was just the start and draws upon the diverse partnerships we established.”

Bringing people together

Culture and being active are also great mediums to bring people together and develop connections, which in turn improves wellbeing and mental health.

Dr Chase said: “For example, the local cultural sector was instrumental in our work to enable and support different communities and ethnic minority groups to access vaccinations during the pandemic. Community media and radio stations worked with our diverse community to engage, listen and support local residents through development of media, including podcasts and videos. Libraries, museums and local cultural organisations and schools also used creativity and heritage as a route to engaging and learning from different age and ethnic minority groups across the city.

“Throughout the pandemic we have seen the importance of people coming together to support each other, but one of the things we lost was connections – at least face-to-face connections. That does have an impact on people and is something we can use culture, creativity and sport to address.

“We have some fantastic events in the city – Southampton International Boat Show, the Mela festival, Music in the City and those delivered by Southampton Football Club and Southampton Parkrun. In fact, Southampton Football Club is a great example of how we can work with the big clubs and organisations to benefit health.

“Through their charity, Saints Foundation, they run all sorts of exercise classes and groups for everyone from five to 96 years of age. They go into primary and secondary schools as well. The foundation is independently run, but I work in close partnership with them to provide guidance and knowledge on where to focus their efforts.

“For example, we have encouraged them to work with men in particular. They are a demographic we can struggle to reach, and while the club has a diverse range of supporters, they have a huge following among the men in the city so we asked them if they could come up with something that would get them active.”

This led to the creation of Saints Goal, a 12-week programme aimed at supporting men to become more active and live healthier lives. Over the past year, more than 130 men have taken part and lost an average of 2.8kg. There is also a falls recovery programme that is run in partnership with the local NHS. “Their programmes are really popular, and they are reaching out to people in a way public health could not necessarily do. Collaboration like this is vital,” added Dr Chase.

Pursuing creative pursuits as a treatment

Dr Chase said the cultural and creative industries also have a role to play in the direct delivery of services. She gave the example of the SoCo Music Project whose work includes diversion therapy for people engaging with Change Grow Live, the city’s adult drug and alcohol treatment and support service. The Council’s museums and gallery deliver workshops and activities for adult learners and people with a variety of needs.

“I visited SoCo recently. They have set up a band with clients. While it is called diversion therapy, it is really much, much more than that. It is benefitting the clients, helping with their rehabilitation and providing them with an opportunity to reconnect with others and develop interests and build self-esteem.

“Change Grow Live also runs an arts therapy group that engages people recovering from drug and alcohol use, using art to explore and learn from their experiences as well as developing skills and positive, supportive relationships with others. For people who have been so marginalised, this is a key intervention, creating positive experiences for people working to re-build their lives.”

The impact of this approach can be seen through the fact more than 60 per cent of people in treatment and support for opiate use disorders engage with psycho-social interventions. “Diversionary activities are a really effective part of the wide range of psycho-social interventions,” added Dr Chase.

“We have lots of small creative organisations across the city to tap into. There is another group called Knit the Walls, which has been set up by a local artist, working in collaboration with God’s House Tower, a newly re-developed local arts and heritage venue. The project uses knitting as a medium to get people to come together sharing stories and memories to build communities. This is also replicated in our libraries network with our Knitter and Natter groups and Rhymetime sessions with young children.

“As Director of Public Health, I want to find opportunities for us, as a city, to support all these wonderful, important initiatives. I want to learn how we can encourage more people to engage with culture, in all its diversity. We know how beneficial it can be - we can see it and we can feel it.”

Dr Chase also believes there is an opportunity to make better use of our leisure services in supporting all Southampton’s residents to be active. She has recently taken over responsibility for the council’s portfolio of swimming pools and leisure services.

“We have traditionally taken a property-asset approach – managing the buildings and facilities. But there is so much more we can do if we take a more strategic, people-focused approach. We can look at how we market them and what we co-locate at the facilities and how we incorporate our green and blue spaces as part of our leisure services offer.

“We also have a huge number of green spaces – one of the highest for any city area – plus the coastline. There are lots of people who use the sea for things like paddle-boarding and sailing. But much of this is the preserve of wealthier people. We want to expand access and do more to open it up to children and adults who would not normally get the opportunity to take part. If we can do this, we will have a very powerful tool in our arsenal. That’s how important activity as well as culture is for public health.”


Debbie Chase is the Director of Public Health at Southampton City Council. She completed her PhD at the University of Southampton in Public Health Research. 


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