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A small farming town is taking its health into its own creative hands.

South Australian mallee town Pinnaroo was last year named the state’s Agricultural Town of the Year.

And now it’s showing off its more artistic side.

The community is setting out to prove that arts activities — including scarf making, pottery, weaving, podcasts and performances – can have real benefits on the health of a community.

Key points:

  • The SA farming town of Pinnaroo will trial Australian-first arts and health study
  • Flinders University researchers will engage with 200 participants
  • The study will test whether arts can reduce depression, blood pressure

They are calling it the Pinnaroo Project and have secured funding, artists and a team of researchers from Flinders University in what is believed to be an Australian-first health and arts study.

The project was the brainchild of the town’s Mallee Arts Group, which formed seven years ago as a chance to create arts activities within the predominantly farming community on the border of South Australia and Victoria.

One of the group’s members is Julie Wallis, who owns a farm at Pinnaroo with her husband and is one of the co-chairs of the Pinnaroo Project.

When her children were younger she operated a hair salon from home but when that was sidelined by illness she turned to art as a way to relax.

“I find when I am working with my hands I am in the moment,  [it creates] meditative thinking and actions, being lost in the process of making.”

Artist Julie Wallis is a co-chair of the Pinnaroo Project and took part in the Flinders University study to collect baseline health data from the community.(Supplied: Pinnaroo Project Facebook)

While Ms Wallis has since returned to hairdressing, she has also continued with art and carved out a profession making glass plates, bowls, wall art and silver, glass, copper and titanium jewellery.

She said it was important for her mental health and sense of wellbeing.

“Art has for many years been an essential way of life for me,” Ms Wallis said.

This sense of wellbeing was the seed for the Pinnaroo Project.

“We noticed how small and subtle arts activities can make a big difference to people and their sense of wellbeing and connection,” Ms Wallis said.

“It prompted us to think differently about arts and health within our town and we decided that we wanted to make this a regular part of living for the residents of Pinnaroo.”

And it turns out there is an established connection between art and mental health.

Flinders University’s Caring Futures Institute has been engaged to measure the health outcomes of the project.

Its researchers, led by Professor Robyn Clark, expect to see an improvement in depression and wellbeing over the next three years.

“That’s a major issue in country towns at the moment, so that’s our main focus and we are hypothesising we will improve those scores,” Professor Clark said.

She said another measurable outcome would be blood pressure.

“We can lower blood pressure in two ways by less anxiety and adhering to their medicines because they are in a good place and become more compliant to their health and taking care of themselves.”

Researchers attended a local training session at the Pinnaroo football and netball club to recruit participants for the health survey.(Supplied: Caring Futures Institute)

Collecting baseline health data

The research team recently visited the town to recruit participants and collect baseline data including blood pressure, diet, weight, blood sugar, cholesterol, activity levels and mental health.

By visiting local groups including the men’s shed, football and netball club, bingo and schools they were able to assess the health of 182 residents, enough to make the study significant for the town of between 700–1200.

Professor Clark said the data would remain anonymous.

“I think that’s been part of our success. We’re very impressed by the enthusiasm of the community,” she said.

“We may not get exactly the same people but as long as we have the same proportions of each age and sex group we will be able to generalise our data and show improvements, we hope,” 

Flinders Professor Clark said she hoped the health study would allow the Pinnaroo Project to become a model for other communities.

“This is very, very special. Here we have a community that’s going to address its own health and wellbeing by picking itself up and doing these creative projects and measuring it scientifically,” Professor Clark said.

“We have examples of arts and healths projects in the literature, in the science. They do work but not anything like this in Australia or South Australia that I know of.”

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