Arts used in Suicide Prevention: Audio lay Summary

Arts and Humanities: Visual Arts and Performing Arts

What is this about?

This review article looks at how the arts could help to reduce suicide.

It looks at examples of people who have used the arts in suicide prevention programmes, and how it helped people.

It also looks at types of art or artistic expression we know less about, and what would be good for us to learn more about in future, so we can help more people and reduce suicide.

Why is it needed?

Arts could be very helpful in suicide prevention, but not many people have looked at its effects fully. This review looked at all the evidence we have now, and ways of using performing arts in suicide prevention.

Facts about suicide

Suicide is a leading cause of death all over the world. There are around 700,000 deaths from suicide per year. More than half of suicides happen before age 50.

There are many causes of suicide. Mental heath problems, including what’s known as common mood disorders, like depression and anxiety, are a big cause.

Other causes include chronic pain, illness, legal or financial problems, drug addiction, bullying or violence, and loneliness.

Preventing suicide is possible. To prevent suicide, a person’s whole life should be taken into account: Their relationships, where they live, their health care etc.

There are also things that could be done at a national level, such as making it harder to get firearms or making it easier to talk about thoughts of suicide with doctors.

Teachers, caregivers, and support services can also be taught to notice warning signs and know how to guide someone towards help.

Teaching young people about mental health, coping skills and where to go for help is also important. A main goal of preventing suicide is to reduce stigma. This is where people do not talk about it because of fear of being judged. Though it’s important to think about whether talking about it being widespread is a risk, as it might make suicide seem like a ‘normal’ way to cope with difficulties.

Facts about art

Art is expressing yourself creatively. Art can be used to teach people important things or help to understand experiences such as emotions and relationships.

The arts can come in different forms. Art forms can include performing arts, visual arts, literature, culture, and digital arts. People and organisations are becoming more interested in the effects of the arts on health. The arts can have positive effects on mental and physical well-being. This is because they can help with self-understanding, expression, confidence, self-esteem, and communication.

How arts can help people’s health

Scientific research shows that arts can improve people’s health. Arts could be music, drama, or dance.

The arts can also help people to manage illness. Performing arts (art that happens live such as drama, dance, or music) help people to use their imagination. This can create positive emotions and reduce stress. It can help people to use other parts of the brain more too.

Performing arts are becoming widely used as a tool for better physical and mental health, as well as treatment in care settings.

Arts can also be used to reduce the stigma that still exists against mental illness. Interactive theatre (where audiences are involved in the performance) can help people to see if they hold stigmas without realising it and break down barriers between people with and without mental illnesses.

Through performance, people can engage in their own learning through talking, experiments, and movement. It is very important for the people leading these sessions to be trained well. Performing “demanding” activities that are not well planned could have negative effects on people.

Taking part in performing art forms has led to physical improvements, such as blood pressure, heart rate, and immune status in patients with cancer, respiratory or cardiac disease, or diabetes.

Dance and movements gave patients with mental illnesses a good way to talk and increase physical activity, and in patients with Parkinson’s disease, they reduced isolation.

Some studies show doing performing arts lowers the risk of getting depression, as it helped improve self-confidence. Children and young people who took part in art programs said it had increased their communication skills, anger management, and levels of well-being and resilience.

Other studies showed an improvement in life skills, coping skills, an increase in school performance. Art classes involving creative writing, dancing, or listening to music helped with feelings of support among health care workers.

Different art forms can also be helpful for the caregivers themselves. They can listen to their own needs, reduce stress, improve empathy, enjoy ‘breakthrough’ moments, and build a positive image of themselves and their skills.

Performing arts can also be used for role-playing in the training of mental health workers. This can help with communication skills, empathy, and understanding of the needs of patients. In most cases, health care workers getting role play as training understood how to talk to patients with more kindness and reported greater satisfaction with their jobs.

In some scientific studies learners could watch role-play and talk about it. In others they could create their own role-play, such as writing or acting. In both studies, they are actively involved. The role-play training seems to work better than passive training (e.g., reading about it), as it builds skills by practising and changes behaviour.

Performing arts can involve people in the creative process live at any level – they can watch, act and change what happens in role-play.

How did they find this information?

Studies were collected from between 1981 and 2021. Most studies were from 2010 onwards, and about half of them are studies from the US. Some studies had less people involved (10 to 50) some were very large (over 33, 000).

Twenty-five art projects, or treatments if you like, were tested to see if they prevent suicide. Others were to reduce or prevent wider physical health problems.

There were three main art forms: theatre, role-playing, and multiple art forms.

Twenty-seven studies used role-playing, others used art forms such as theatre, film, music, creative writing and more.

The review checked the quality of the studies included. For more information, why not check out the original article below?

What did they find?

Being able to express yourself creatively is very powerful and engaging.

There is clear evidence that arts can support mental health by reducing stigma, helping with coping skills and empathy. It can also help people to share emotions such as loneliness or feeling like a burden. These things all help reduce the risk for suicide.

Most of the studies used role-playing to teach workers, such as roleplaying talking with a ‘patient’. Role-playing allows learners to practise in realistic situations. This allows them to make mistakes and learn in a stress-free environment.

Training was good at changing attitudes and building knowledge, but we still don’t yet know how it prevents suicide.

Performance can help actors and audiences to share fears, which can make them feel empowered.

Reducing this fear can help audience members to feel more confident to contact professionals about suicide.

There were very few studies using just theatre techniques, so while the researchers say that theatre groups (?) are widespread, it isn’t studied much in medical research. So, perhaps more research on the possible improvements in wellbeing from theatre groups needs to happen across the medical and social sciences.

Using theatre in suicide prevention is not new, and theatre has been used to raise awareness and reduce stigma in education. Seeing actors using coping skills in a performance can help give students confidence to help their peers, or get help themselves.

Do the arts help to prevent suicide?

Overall, using performing art techniques had a positive impact on suicide prevention programs. In fact, no studies shared any negative results. This means that performing arts could be a useful tool to make suicide prevention programs better.

We don’t know as much about using art techniques in community settings yet. Very few studies gave details on costs. This is something that would be good to look at in future research. Another area we know less about is arts techniques in less wealthy countries.

While no negative outcomes, such as reports of distress/harm, in studies were shared in this review, it is possible that some may have happened but not been published.

Research clearly shows that just raising awareness on suicide alone will not reduce the risk. Working closely with people is also needed.

A lot of suicide prevention programmes use passive training, such as reading or watching videos. Active training should also be used, as they can help with skills and understanding behaviour. Active training seems to work better, because learners can take control of their own training and learning.

So, will the arts always help to prevent suicide?

It is worth bearing in mind that this is only a small group of research studies.

Sometimes good experiences with performing arts are more likely to be published then those that show no improvement or even unhelpful experiences. So, there is a chance that some of these studies only shared the good outcomes and didn’t share bad outcomes that may have happened.

From the information we have, arts do help to prevent suicide and could be used more in prevention programmes. But really, we need to find out more about it first before diving in.

What does this mean for the future?

The studies the researchers reviewed here show that performing arts work well in suicide prevention programs, both to train workers and to speak to/work with high-risk people.

Involving the trainee in actual performance seems to really help improve learning. In theatre studies it is involving people’s emotions that increases awareness and reduces stigma. This can then lead more people to seek help. However, to understand exactly how arts help to prevent suicide, we need more higher quality studies to be done to look at the therapeutic benefit of performing arts in suicide prevention.

William Shakespeare is often quoted to say that: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” Though he suggests that life is a stage, what Shakespeare perhaps didn’t know is that the stage may also have the potential to preserve and enrich life.


Title of lay summary Arts used in Suicide Prevention: Audio lay Summary
Lay Summary Author(s)

Sarah Shaw

Vetting Professional Dr Anthony Harrison
Vetting Professional Affiliation(s) / participating organisation(s) Fall into Place
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Scoping Review

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What is the licence for your lay summary? Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) (for all other options selected above)
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Title of the original peer-reviewed published article: Performing Arts in Suicide Prevention Strategies: A Scoping Review
Journal Name: MDPI
Issue (if applicable): 22
Page numbers (if applicable): 1-22
Year of publication: 2022

Chiara Davico

Alessandra Rossi Ghiglione

Elena Lonardelli

Francesca Di Franco

et al.

Contributors and funders:

In the last two years, B.V. has received consultant fees or honoraria from Medice, Lundbeck, Angelini, and Alkermes Pharmaceuticals; C.D. has received a consultant fee from Roche and Lundbeck, and D.M. has received a consultant fee from Ethos Ltd. The remaining authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as potential conflicts of interest.

Original Article language: English
Article Type: Scoping review
What licence permission does the original e-print have? For more information on this please see our permissions video): Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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