Arts & Social Change: What can public health professionals learn from artists?

By Samuel R. Mendez. July 20, 2023.

Artists have a lot to teach public health professionals. This includes how to build an audience and create memorable experiences. More importantly, artists can also teach us to transform ourselves and, in turn, the world around us. If we want to achieve health equity, this type of transformation must be part of public health.

In spring 2020, I was finishing my master’s degree online. Those couple months marked more time in person than my partner and I had spent together in several years as a couple, thanks to school, work, and life itself.

The backdrop is a red convertible with the top down, against a clear blue sky. In thin black text in the space above the car: One too idle, oh I'm in a spiral, Take me for a. In thicker bold black text, with a yellow highlight, in the space of the spy visible in the windshield: Sunday Drive.

The surrealness of that time still sticks with me. An afternoon spent waiting in line for the grocery store. A graduation in the kitchen. A birthday on screen. We all were there.

Thanks to the magic of recommendation algorithms, I heard a song for the first time. Browsing the YouTube comments revealed a shared experience. “When my kids ask how quarantine was I’ll explain with this song.”

The power of a pop song

“June Gloom” is a song describing Allie X’s experience growing up with an autoimmune condition, an increasingly common experience in the US. It comes from Cape God, an album inspired by a documentary about the opioid crisis in Massachusetts, where over 2,000 people have died from opioid overdose each year since 2016. Allie X has described the common ground she found with people featured in the documentary.

“They don’t know if they’re going to survive. They had problems connecting to their family. They have so much shame. There was just all these sort of parallels.” 

By sharing these emotional insights, she built an audience able to feel a sense of commonality around addiction, chronic illness, and pandemic-era isolation. Fans may not learn facts and figures, but isn’t this emotional insight also a kind of education?

Stigma is a barrier to opioid use disorder treatment, a factor related to lower quality of life in multiple sclerosis patients, and a common experience around COVID-19 in the US. Stigma is a powerful force based on emotion more than fact. So why shouldn’t emotional insight be part of a public health strategy to address it?

Transformation or information?

There are many formal ways to understand the power of art. Literature scholar Doris Sommer explained public art’s power via its ability to create freeing experiences outside of everyday political and economic constraints. Social epidemiologist and poet Ryan J. Petteway described poetry as a powerful form of critique, self-empowerment, and knowledge production in the face of racism.

When public health communication includes art, however, it doesn’t typically focus on imagination, freedom, or power. It tends to focus on information. Researchers have used telenovelas to teach people about genomics. Narrative games have proven useful in changing health behaviors, as have audio-visual narratives. Beyond the scope of health communication, the arts are gaining prominence as a public resource that can promote individuals’ health outcomes. While this utilitarian approach has led to positive outcomes, it still doesn’t reflect art’s potential to disrupt and transform.


“Way Back” by Amber Mark comes at the end of 3:33am, an album about the grief she felt around her mom’s death from cancer. I first heard it around the time a good friend was dying from cancer. Over time, my relationship to it changed as I processed my grief. At first it felt like a peek into the future: if she found a way out of the thick of grief, I would too. Then it felt like a way to describe the ebbs and flows of healing. Its blurring of past and present resonated with my own attempts to make sense of my growing distance from my friend and our relationship from our early twenties.

Eventually, the song became an inspiration to be more open with my feelings of grief and anger more broadly.

Helpful Models

Turbulence” was a drama therapy production by NYU’s Theatre and Health Lab. It actively engaged audience members in exploring BIPOC experiences in clinical settings. In reflecting on her experience of co-creation, music therapist Jasmine Edwards described how the space of the partnership helped her process her own racialized experiences and connect with others over theirs. In her words, she was, “seen, heard, understood, and, above all else, held.”

The COSECHA study is a youth participatory action research project that looked at Latina teens’ exposure to pesticides in Salinas Valley, California. This led to research findings on the geographic distribution of pesticide exposure, as well as a community mural. Partnering artist José G. Ortiz describes the importance of this artistic approach, thanks to its ability to “communicate a feeling, a thought, a dream, an idea. And how we process that can make it come to life.” This aligns with the broader work of his arts organization Hijos del Sol. He describes the space they’ve made as, “a place, a home, where we can practice at an early age who we truly are.”

These examples help me imagine a different kind of public health. One that doesn’t just give people information, but also creates spaces where communities can come together to produce knowledge and practice living in a better future.

Public Health Communication Action Items

The arts enable emotional insight and personal transformation. Here are ways we can integrate art into public health. Individuals can practice less didactic community engagement, focused instead on emotional experiences. Orgs can start an artist-in-residence program. They can also provide seed funding for collaborations with artists. A policy goal can be to fund more arts programs through a public health lens, integrating best practice from existing policies that improved health outcomes.

There are steps we can take to integrate the arts into our public health communication, fostering emotional insight and transformation:

  • Individuals: Practice less didactic health communication and community engagement. Record process evaluation data to capture how people experience these events and any changes in their comfort interacting with public health professionals.
  • Organizations: Start an artist-in-residence program around a particular health topic. The UCSF Weil Institute for Neurosciences offers a helpful model.
  • Policy: Integrate best practice from existing policies for more robust arts funding via a public health approach.


Key References

  1. Petteway RJ. (2021). “Poetry as Praxis + ‘Illumination’: Toward an Epistemically Just Health Promotion for Resistance, Healing, and (Re)Imagination.” Health Promotion Practice, 22(1_suppl): 20S-26S.
  2. Sommer D. (2014). The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Duke University Press.
  3. Harley KG, Parra KL, Camacho J, Bradman A, Nolan, JES, et al. (2019). “Determinants of pesticide concentrations in silicone wristbands worn by Latina adolescent girls in a California farmworker community: The COSECHA youth participatory action study.” Science of The Total Environment, 652: 1022-1029.

Stay in Touch with Samuel

You can find Samuel talking about health communication, health equity, and video games: @samuelanimates on Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, Tiktok, and on the Mastodon server. 

Samuel Mendez


The mission of the Boston Congress of Public Health Thought Leadership for Public Health Fellowship (BCPH Fellowship) seeks to: 

  • Incubate the next generation of thought leaders in public health;
  • Advance collective impact for health equity through public health advocacy; and
  • Diversify, democratize, and broaden evidence-based public health dialogue and expression.

It is guided by an overall vision to provide a platform, training, and support network for the next generation of public health thought leaders and public scholars to explore and grow their voice.