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A team of Oxford researchers has won a grant from the University’s Covid-19 Research Response Fund to study the effects of online cultural experiences on mental health. This new study will use the unique opportunity of lockdown and social distancing to gather new evidence.

Online Collections at the Ashmolean.

The team is drawn from the University’s Department of Psychiatry and the Oxford Internet Institute who will pilot a study using the Ashmolean Museum’s digital collections and resources.

Mental health and wellbeing is among the major public health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. Concurrently, engagement with digital culture including museum collections has been remarkable. While it has long been known that non-clinical factors like participation in arts or sports is probably beneficial for people’s mental health, strong empirical evidence is lacking. 

People are invited to contribute to the new Online Active Community Engagement for Mental Health and Wellbeing (O-ACE) study.

Faced with unmet demand for services, clinicians have increasingly looked for new means to augment mental health provision, for instance, the potential use of community assets like museums, galleries and gardens.  These unmet needs are likely to increase as a result of the pandemic and lockdown. During this time museums themselves have seen rising numbers of people using digital resources for entertainment, reflection and escape. Since lockdown began, more than 2000 people have looked at the famous Alfred Jewel on the Ashmolean website. In April 2020 visits to the Museum’s online collections increased by 101% on the previous year.  More than 20,000 people have seen the Young Rembrandt exhibition online.  17,000 people have taken selfies using the Ashmolean’s Instagram filters – putting themselves in front of museum objects and animations. 

The Online Active Community Engagement for Mental Health and Wellbeing (O-ACE) study has been awarded £37,000 from the University’s Covid-19 Research Response Fund.  The study is intended to last 16 weeks and will evaluate existing online resources at the Ashmolean; recruit study participants from existing networks with a particular focus on groups vulnerable to mental health problems during the pandemic; and it will develop and test content using experimental medicine methodologies to assess impacts on mental health and wellbeing.  The testing and analyses will be supported by the infrastructure of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.  The study aims to generate pilot data which the Oxford research team can use for longer-term enquiry and development.

Susan McCormack, Director of Public Engagement, Ashmolean Museum, says: ‘Access to museums and culture online has been a real tonic for people during the COVID-19 lockdown.  The Ashmolean has seen a huge increase in digital engagement.  Curiously interacting with our visitors online, especially through social media, has felt quite personal, even intimate.

‘Despite the clear appetite for online museum content we don’t fully understand the science behind the impact of digital engagement.  This project will help us gather evidence, improve what we do in the future, and provide new resources for mental health.’

 

We are so excited to be pulling together and working with colleagues across disciplines at this time of need. This is an ideal time to explore engaging and innovative approaches to mental health using scientifically rigorous methodologies. As a doctor, I am looking forward to improving our collective armoury against distressing mental health problems like anxiety and depression. - Rebecca Syed Sheriff, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford.

Professor John Geddes, Head of the Department of Psychiatry, says: ‘One positive aspect of this terrible pandemic is that colleagues in both clinical service and the University’s museums and libraries have responded creatively using digital technology to maintain, and even increase, engagement with the community.  The funding we have received will kick-start our evaluation of these innovations – which could be a really powerful way of helping people to manage mental health problems.’

Andy Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute says: ‘There are common perceptions that online technologies have a negative impact on both children and adults.  While evidence abounds that disputes this, we lack data on how internet-enabled experiences can actually benefit mental health.  I’m excited to see where this project goes and whether Oxford’s cultural resources, the internet, and rigorous scientific practices can be leveraged to shift the conversation and make a concrete difference in people’s lives worldwide.’

 

Professor Anne Trefethen, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Gardens, Libraries and Museums, University of Oxford, says: ‘I am delighted that the cultural institutions of the University and colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry, and the Oxford Internet Institute have come together to take forward this research.  We are aware that the institutions can provide support for wellbeing and good mental health but of course at this time there is only remote access to the collections which increases the need to understand better the benefits of engaging with cultural assets online.’

For more information

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