Sweden to test ‘culture by prescription’

Doctors in south-western Sweden will soon be able to prescribe cultural activities such as choir lessons or ceramics classes as part of a taxpayer-funded initiative to help reduce prolonged absences from work due to illness.

Sweden to test 'culture by prescription'

On Monday, the Swedish government announced that health authorities in Skåne in southern Sweden will receive 500,000 kronor ($72,600) from the public purse to fund a pilot programme called Kultur på recept (‘Culture by prescription’).

The one-year trial will be carried out at a health clinic in Helsingborg operated by Capio Citykliniken and offer patients access to cultural activities as a complement to their traditional treatment and rehabilitation.

“We know that illnesses affect people in different ways and can lead to absences due to sickness of varying lengths of time,” said social security minister Cristina Husmark Pehrsson in a statement.

“My hope is that culture by prescription can offer new insights into how culture, in a more pronounced way, can be a part of rehabilitation for extended absences due to illness.”

Research has shown a positive relationship between participating in cultural activities and an individual’s health, according to the ministers of culture and health, who jointly presented the programme on Tuesday.

As the government searches for ways to reduce the number of Swedes on long-term sick leave, the idea of exploring how cultural activities may help improve people’s health received a positive reception from government officials.

The culture by prescription trial will target patients suffering from low- and medium-grade depression, stress, anxiety, as well as those who have had back, shoulder or neck pains which have lasted more than three months.

Culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth was optimistic about the possibilities of spreading the positive effects of culture to other aspects of people’s lives.

“For me, it’s important that culture is everywhere; in schools, in healthcare, and in the public arena,” she said in a statement.

“We know that culture makes people healthy. I’m convinced that culture and art, with its integrity preserved, can create important added value in conjunction with other areas of society.”

The programme works from a broader definition of culture which, along with theatre visits, also includes activities such as visits to public gardens and enrolling in handicrafts courses.

“The sort of cultural activities to be arranged would be experiences which strengthen self-confidence and provide continuity; culture should be a complement to regular care,” Christina Gedeborg-Nilsson, head of the culture and healthcare division with Region Skåne, told the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper.

According to SvD, health authorities in Umeå are also seeking funding to support a similar project in northern Sweden.

A final report on the results of the programme is to be submitted to the government in June 2011.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Swedes have a deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol, embodied in the state monopoly on its sale. Although ridden with guilt and hypocrisy, it is a healthy relationship, says David Crouch

Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Those boxes by the checkout sum up my problem with Systembolaget, Sweden’s chain of state-owned liquor stores. The boxes are called ångravagnar, from ångra, to regret. “Psst,” says the sign over each one. “Have you changed your mind? Here you can put back any drinks you don’t want to buy.”

The boxes are there to make you think again – do you really need all that booze? Won’t you hate yourself if you don’t put back a bottle or two? 

The regret boxes seem to serve little practical purpose, because they are almost always empty. Instead, they are there to send a message, whispering “Psst!” in your ear: “Don’t do it! Alcohol is wicked!”

Smiling assistants lurk around the stores, in theory so you can ask them what wine goes best with your food. Nonsense – they are the morality police, another “psst” in your ear. Talking to them feels like going to confession: forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. Then there are all the TV ads for Systembolaget depicting toddlers being abused by drunken parents, or pious staff saying their aim is to sell less alcohol, not more

As a result, entering Systembolaget feels like having sex in church: a shameful pleasure. Here you cease to be an adult capable of taking decisions for yourself and instead become a wayward teenager who needs to be shepherded towards acceptable behaviour.  

Systembolaget – abbreviated to Systemet, or “the System” – is the embodiment of Swedes’ deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol. It is institutionalised guilt on national scale. 

This guilt has historical roots. Sweden once had a serious alcohol problem. A century ago, average vodka consumption reached almost a litre a week for every man, woman and child. For decades, the country battled to find a way to bring down consumption, first with rationing and then the state monopoly from 1955.

The guilty view of alcohol lives on in all sorts of ways. Sweden, a nation renowned for embracing modernity and liberal freedoms, still has a significant temperance movement. The snappily named Independent Order of Good Templars has 24,000 members – more than most of Sweden’s political parties – and believes that Systembolaget should close at 5pm and be shut altogether on Fridays and Saturdays. 

In Britain, for example, politicians like to pose with a drink to show they are “of the people”. This could never happen here. I once went campaigning with a political leader in the run-up to elections, and we needed somewhere warm afterwards for an interview. But she declined to enter a convenient bar in case she might be photographed in a place selling alcohol. 

Quite apart from the System’s restrictive opening hours, there are very few stores – just 450, or one per 23,000 people. Until very recently, there were more golf courses in Sweden than places where you could buy a bottle of wine over the counter. (There are 449 golf courses, down from 454 in 2019.)

A recent opinion survey has compared attitudes to alcohol in the Nordics. Sweden emerges clearly as the Nordic nation that is the most uptight about alcohol. Fewer than half (45%) of Swedes say it’s okay occasionally to get drunk; one in five say it is even wrong to get drunk at a party. Finns and Danes come out as far more relaxed about booze. 

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. In my experience, the best way to liven up a social gathering in Sweden is to uncork the gin and let it flow copiously. Not so long ago, a former government minister responsible for raising the tax on alcohol became so inebriated (berusad) at a party in the Stockholm archipelago that he exposed himself to the female guests. 

And yet, Sweden’s relationship with alcohol is a healthy one. Systembolaget is popular among Swedes, its reputation exceeding that of well-loved brands such as IKEA, Volvo or Spotify. More than three-quarters want the state monopoly on alcohol to remain in force, while only 18 percent say they want wine and spirits to be on sold in other stores

Despite its faults, Systembolaget represents society taking collective responsibility for a drug that has the potential to cause great harm. After decades of free-market liberalism across the globe, it is easy to forget that societies once behaved like societies, instead of leaving everything to individuals and the interplay of supply and demand. 

How refreshing that young people are not bombarded with advertising telling them they need booze to gave a good time. Living here, you would never have any idea that the country supplies the world with that supreme party drink, Absolut Vodka. Consumption is ticking downwards, and fewer than 3 percent of Swedes drink every day

When I see those regret boxes, part of me wants to scream: “Regrets?! No way! It’s been a hard week, let me get wasted in peace.” But the boxes are the price I have to pay for the comforting knowledge that, in this aspect at least, Swedish society takes responsibility for its citizens’ welfare. I don’t like it, but I accept that it is necessary. It is not ideal, but it works. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.