Stephen will retire this month, after joining Canterbury Christ Church University in 1980. His initial role was to teach on the University’s first Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology. Since then his career has grown to include being the Director of the World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre for the European Health Promoting School (2003-2006), he co-established the University’s Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health (2005), published the first piece of research into singing and health (2001) and delivered findings from the world’s first randomised controlled trial on community singing and the wellbeing of older people (2015). He also helped to set-up the RSPH Health and Wellbeing Awards and established the first academic journal for arts and health.
However, more importantly is the significant positive impact that his work, and that of colleagues in the Sidney De Haan Research Centre, has had upon the physical and mental wellbeing of people with long term conditions through creative activities such as group singing, that makes his career and contributions stand out.
Stephen explained: “Things have changed an awful lot since I joined in 1980. The campus only had a small number of buildings, such as the Chapel and the quad, and a few halls of residence. The University has been good to me, giving me the freedom to do what I’ve wanted to do and always giving me encouragement and support. I’ve so loved working at Christ Church. It suited me at every stage of my career. I’ve had wonderful colleagues to work with and consistently had good and sincere support from management and that has really helped me achieve what I have achieved, and I am really grateful. As the institution has changed and grown, so I have been able to develop my interests and been able to grow too in relation to arts, health and wellbeing.
“I joined as a lecturer in Educational Studies and was appointed as part of the University’s growth to teach on its first Master’s degree in Educational Psychology with Dr Rob Povey. The course ran for number of years and during that time David Steers was appointed to develop Health Education at the institution. I began to work with David in the 1980’s as the AIDS epidemic was growing and it was then that we started some of the earliest research into the area of what young people understood about the disease, about the risks and their attitude towards it. We were very successful, very quickly and within two years we had secured funding and were running a national training programme for the Health Education Authority across England, for people supporting schools with the provision of sex education.
“Through David, this led to us working with the World Health Organisation in Copenhagen looking at the role of schools in health promotion. This eventually this led to the delivery of training across Europe for people supporting schools with a more holistic sense of health promotion, looking at topics such as bullying, smoking, nutrition etc as well as sex education.”
However, it was a single sentence in a magazine and a quick comment from former colleague and now Emeritus Professor, Grenville Hancox, that would lead Stephen to start work on his most successful and definitive research.
In 1998 Stephen sought to return to choral singing, having been a member of various choirs in his childhood. However, feeling anxious and shy and not wanting to audition, he instead joined a short course run the by the University’s Music Department called Unlock Your Voice, run by Tania Williams. During the course Grenville put his head around the door to let the group know that anyone could join the University’s Choral Society, there were no auditions, and all were welcome to come along and sing. At the same time Stephen had read an article in the BBC Music Magazine where one sentence had stood out to him: singing is good for your health.
“I thought ‘what a good idea’. Messages in health education are often based around what you shouldn’t do, even if you enjoy it, because it might be risky or dangerous (don’t drink, don’t eat sugary foods, don’t be a couch potato, don’t have sex!). But here was an activity that was enjoyable, safe and potential good for wellbeing and health!”
“So, being a researcher, I looked around for what research had been done on the subject and found very little had been published. Like our work on AIDS in the 1980s, this was another new area with no significant research. So, having joined the University’s Choral Society, Grenville and I did some work with the members. Initially a very simple questionnaire, followed by a more structured one."
" Our first piece of research on singing and its perceived benefits was a very modest piece, but it continues to be cited regularly. What we found through that work has very much stood the test of time. Further work has been done by different institutions and academics all over the world and their findings pretty much say what we originally said in 2001."
This first research paper with Grenville was published in the Journal of The Royal Society for the Promotion of Health and attracted a lot of attention. It led to a meeting with Roger De Haan, and the establishment of the successful Sidney De Haan Research Centre, and a meeting with the CEO of the Royal Society, Professor Richard Parish, which led to setting-up the annual prestigious RSPH Arts and Health Awards and a longstanding relationship between the organisation and the University.
Stephen continued: “That initial study is the one that stands out in my career as it led to so many things and particularly the link between the University and what became the Royal Society of Public Health.
“Our research quickly moved on from people who were choosing to join choirs, to looking at people who had never sung in choirs and who particularly had long term health issues, dementia, mental health, Parkinson’s lung disease, and we found the same experience over and over again. People were initially resistant and did not really believe it would be of any help to them, make a difference to them physically or mentally and just like me, they were shy and didn’t want to sing in front of people. But those that did make the effort, were prepared to take the risk and try it, were time and again truly amazed by the difference singing made, especially in terms of the uplift of their mood.
"I vividly remember one lady with COPD and problems breathing, who came along to one of groups, telling me she could not believe the positive difference singing had made to her anxiety. She hadn’t realised and had no idea about that. It can be very difficult to show the physical differences that singing can achieve, in terms of lung function, but psychologically you can see the difference."
Professor Stephen Clift (front row right) taking part in a singing group
The work of the Sidney De Haan Research Centre has been recognised internationally for its importance in driving the concept of using creative arts to help improve the wellbeing of people with long term conditions, as well as helping many older people reduce their experience of loneliness.
“When we set up the Sidney De Haan Centre Grenville would use the phrase of singing on prescription. We had this idea that singing groups would be established all over the country, and GPs and other health professionals would be able to write a note saying: ‘Go and join a singing group!’. In a sense that is beginning to happen with the national social prescribing initiative.
“The concept of arts and health has grown to an astonishing degree over the last couple of decades and I suppose that has surprised me. But there is still a lot to do. There’s lots of activity going on, but there still could be more. The Arts Council England has consistently supported this kind of work and from time to time government departments have shown an interest, but I hope that social prescribing can become a reality everywhere. The real problem is where are people going to be referred to, and who will be able to do this kind of work? Especially with singing you need really good facilitators, like Grenville.
“These sorts of activity are about bringing people together to engage in a common activity that they value and in that sense they undoubtedly add to their personal and social wellbeing. However, there needs much more investment in community networking activity, community centres and support outside of the NHS. The future, I hope, will be bright for arts, health and wellbeing.”
Professor Stephen Clift on the beach with his dogs Molly and Chloe
Professor Clift retires from Canterbury Christ Church after 40 years of working to promote good health and wellbeing. He becomes an Emeritus Professor and will continue to work with and support the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health.