Participatory arts-based (PAB) programmes refer to a diverse range of community programmes involving active engagement in the creation process that appear helpful to several aspects of children’s and young people’s (CYP) mental health and well-being. This mixed-methods systematic review synthesises evidence relating to the effectiveness and mechanisms of change in PAB programmes for youth.
Studies were identified following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses approach. Eleven electronic databases were searched for studies of PAB programmes conducted with CYP (aged 4–25 years), which reported mental health and well-being effectiveness outcomes and/or mechanisms of change. A mixed-methods appraisal tool assessed study quality. A narrative synthesis was conducted of effectiveness and challenges in capturing this. Findings relating to reported mechanisms of change were integrated via a metasummary.
Twenty-two studies were included. Evidence of effectiveness from quantitative studies was limited by methodological issues. The metasummary identified mechanisms of change resonant with those proposed in talking therapies. Additionally, PAB programmes appear beneficial to CYP by fostering a therapeutic space characterised by subverting restrictive social rules, communitas that is not perceived as coercive, and inviting play and embodied understanding.
There is good evidence that there are therapeutic processes in PAB programmes. There is a need for more transdisciplinary work to increase understanding of context–mechanism–outcome pathways, including the role played by different art stimuli and practices. Going forward, transdisciplinary teams are needed to quantify short- and long-term mental health and well-being outcomes and to investigate optimal programme durations in relation to population and need. Such teams would also be best placed to work on resolving inter-disciplinary methodological tensions.