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How Can Social Prescribing Benefit Your Mental Health?

Over the last few years, you may have seen or heard the term social prescribing being thrown around. Social prescribing is the new buzz term in the fight against poor mental health, but what exactly is it and how can it help?

 

 

What Is Social Prescribing?

 

The purpose of social prescribing is to link patients in primary care with other sources of support from within the community to improve quality of life outcomes (Bickerdike, Booth, Wilson, Farley, and Wright, 2017). Social care organisations, local councils, and other community organisations can become involved with patients needs and by using this process they can develop and expand local community resources to improve the communities level of quality of life (Chatterjee, Camic, Lockyer, and Thomson, 2018).

 

According to the University of Westminster, establishing a social prescribing movement allows GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer patients to a specialised social prescribing worker. This worker will have a one-to-one conversation with the referred patient, during which the patient will learn about opportunities to improve their quality of life. The purpose of this is to allow people with social, emotional, and/or practical needs to feel empowered to co-create their own personal solutions. This will all be done with aid of services provided by the voluntary and community section as part of the social prescribing movement.

 

According to Brandling and House (2009), social prescribing is about giving GPs and patients additional options for tackling patients’ problems, especially if the origins of the problems are socioeconomic deprivation or long-term psychosocial issues. Thus, for issues like financial problems, they’ll suggest talking to someone from Citizens Advice or for loneliness, they could suggest a dance class.

 

For a while now, people have championed social prescribing as being an innovative movement that might reduce the financial burden on the NHS and primary care (University of Westminster; and South, Higgins, Woodall, and White, 2008). Thus, this could make our GP surgeries more sustainable by providing options that can work alongside existing treatment options (Bickerdike, Booth, Wilson, Farley, and Wright, 2017), not as a replacement for exists options. Furthermore, social prescribing promotes using the voluntary sector to support primary healthcare by providing pathways for patients with non-clinical needs to connect with the community and voluntary services (South, Higgins, Woodall, and White, 2008). 

 

If social prescribing networks and its pathways are properly maintained, then it would allow for monitoring of how effective it is as a whole and separately for specific needs, which should allow for fine tuning.

 

However, a couple of questions seem to be overlooked in social prescribing which will need addressing. For example, how do you know if a patient is clinical or not without a proper assessment? And can a 5-10 minute conversation with a GP really determine if their patient is at a non-clinical level and thus suitable for social prescribing?

 

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How Can Social Prescribing Affect Mental Health?

 

The rationale for social prescribing is rooted in its potential benefits in three areas, according to the Scottish Development Centre for Mental Health (2007). These three areas are: reducing prevalence of and improving mental health outcomes and therefore demands on health services; improving community wellbeing; and
reducing social exclusion. 

 

Although there is nothing wrong with taking medication for your mental health, it shouldn’t be the de facto treatment option for GPs, due in part, too long waiting lists for talking therapy on the NHS. Thus, methods like social prescribing could bridge that gap in treatment. If done right, then it could be of benefit to our mental wellbeing.

 

Chatterjee, Camic, Lockyer, and Thomson (2018) believe that a referral to a mental health practitioner can help some patients while others might benefit from social prescribing instead. And, according to the Scottish Development Centre for Mental Health (2007), social prescribing could help people with mild to moderate mental health issues, producing a range of positive outcomes such as enhanced self-esteem and reduced low mood.

 

Brandling and House (2009) found that social prescribing can enhance engagement with prescribed health-related activities, such as weight loss, through the use of exercise programmes. Another example of this could be supporting a patient that’s socially isolated to engage in a lunch club so they can meet new people. 

 

Support for social prescribing through prescribing hobbies as a supplement to a patient’s existing care plans was found by Fancourt, Opher, and de Oliveira (2020). They also found support for the use of a social prescribing worker to explore a patient’s engagements and willingness to engage in the prescribed hobbies.

 

However, overall, a systematic review of twenty-four studies by Kilgarriff-Foster and O’Cathain (2015) found only limited support for social prescribing in increasing patients’ mental wellbeing and decreasing health service use.

 

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The Problems With Social Prescribing

 

One problem with this new type of prescribing is that it sounds like they’re passing the buck when dealing with peoples’ problems. More often than not, people have already looked for support from charities before waiting two weeks to see a GP. The voluntary and community services that this system would rely on only exist in the first place because of the government and health sector not fulfilling their roles adequately. But, we are where we are, so if there’s a way to connect this patchwork of services to our healthcare to improve quality of life outcomes, then by all means, let’s do that.

 

Few would argue that social prescribing is a magic bullet. It is unlikely to transform people’s lives nor does it detract from the need to address health inequalities through macro-economic policies and public health programmes (South, Higgins, Woodall, and White, 2008).

 

As someone who’s worked in the volunteer sector in mental health and substance abuse, it’s actually a bit concerning that what they’ve outlined social prescribing to be doesn’t already exist. We do it all the time within the volunteer sector without the need of having to create a specialised network to do that; we call in signposting.

 

However, I guess given how healthcare works, creating a social prescribing network and worker would offer a range of perspectives on the causes and treatments of mental wellbeing issues (Scottish Development Centre for Mental Health, 2007).

 

The picture is split in two with the top image being of a person performing a skateboard grin across a rail in a skate park, and the bottom image being of a white woman knitting with friends. The two images are separated by the article title - How Can Social Prescribing Benefit Your Mental Health?

 

One of the main issues with social prescribing is the logistic challenges that go with it. Keeping track of the NHS is hard enough, but community groups can come and go in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, patients who are given information about a community opportunity will not necessarily take it up without some hand-holding (Brandling and House, 2009).

 

One benefit of being a counsellor is that you can signpost client’s and be able to follow-up on the progress in subsequent sessions, which isn’t likely to happen with a GP. Thus, a more generalised non-clinical counsellor or befriender (or social prescribing worker) could offer that level of accountability that’s lacking while freeing up GPs from followups. If you use a befriender system, then the patient would have someone they could go with while sampling hobby ideas.

 

This is supported by Bickerdike, Booth, Wilson, Farley, and Wright (2017) who evaluated 15 social prescribing programmes between 2000-2016. They found that most of the social prescribing programmes were small scale, limited by design, limited by reporting, and all rated as high risk of bias. Thus, these studies presented positive conclusions that can’t really be trusted too much. Because of the issues identified, there isn’t any clear evidence that supports social prescribing as being successful or value for money.

 

Complex interventions can be resistant to explanation and clarification through research (Brandling and House, 2009), and social prescribing can and will fall into that difficulty.

 

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My Thoughts

 

As a substance abuse recovery worker in my former job and as a volunteer psychological therapist in my current role, I’ve tried ‘social prescribing’ or signposting, as we call it. I’ve recommended my clients take up a new hobby or reconnect with an old one. It’s a nice idea, but I’ve found it challenging to do in practice and certainly isn’t something that should be done as a replacement for therapy.

 

The problem I’ve found, in my experience at least, is how difficult it is to get clients motivated to take up a hobby or to get the client motivated to engage in the hobby even if they find one that interests them.

 

One of the biggest roadblocks is being too tired from work and family obligations, which isn’t a surprise. If you have young children, then you have to factor that in. You have to looking after the kids, putting them to bed, deal with morning routine, commute time, work, help the kids with their homework, and doing household chores. All that doesn’t leave much room for a hobby. Trying to get people to take up past hobbies they enjoyed can be difficult when they’re exhausted from work and looking after their children. Most people working in London would be lucky to get home from before 19.00.

 

Even those without families rarely have the motivation to engage with their hobbies; you first need to get them motivated, which can be challenging. As a client, per se, I’ve tried taking up new hobbies, from going to the gym, art, and weekly ballroom dancing classes. The problem with these hobbies is that they didn’t help me; they worked as a distraction only when I was doing them, and then it was back to my depressive state. That’s the problem with distractions; they don’t help you when you’re not using them, and you can’t use them all the time.

 

Engaging in hobbies gives me something to do, but it has done nothing to improve my mental health. Hopefully, other people will benefit from hobbies more than I do. However, the real problem is that our work/life balance is all wrong, and there’s little we can do without government intervention to address that.

 

When I was working as a substance abuse recovery worker, I tried forming a partnership between the local adult education centre and our service to get our clients to try new activities. I tried to do this to help the clients’ fill the void that the substances were filling for them. However, my manager at the time decided against finalising the process. Same with my attempts to arrange activities like bowling and day trips for the clients.

 

I’ve also referred clients to Citizens Advice, Beat, and Mind because signposting is an important part of providing a holistic approach to helping someone, at least in the charity sector. I wouldn’t call that social prescribing, though. What I’d call social prescribing, and the version I’ve seen most in the news as of late, is stuff like prescribing you to go to the gym. This was a social prescribing option I experienced myself. I got a reduced membership at the local gym for a year. Not free, even though I’m on disability benefits, which is annoying as my other prescriptions are free. You can’t really ‘social prescribe’ something to someone that’s going to leave them with an expense they can’t afford. The lack of follow-up on this is also problematic. Do they just count it as a success if I try the option when there’s zero follow-up?

 

But don’t worry about all that. You could apply social prescribing to yourself by looking into hobbies and interests you could take up. To find out more about hobbies, click here.

 

As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences and thoughts of social prescribing in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget to bookmark my site and if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.

 

Lastly, if you’d like to support my blog, you can make a donation of any size below. Until next time, Unwanted Life readers.

 

 

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References

 

Bickerdike, L., Booth, A., Wilson, P. M., Farley, K., & Wright, K. (2017). Social prescribing: less rhetoric and more reality. A systematic review of the evidence. BMJ Open7(4). Retrieved from https://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2016-013384.

Brandling, J., & House, W. (2009). Social prescribing in general practice: adding meaning to medicine. British Journal of General Practice59(563), 454-456. Retrieved from https://bjgp.org/content/59/563/454.short, https://bjgp.org/content/bjgp/59/563/454.full.pdf, and https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp09X421085.

Chatterjee, H. J., Camic, P. M., Lockyer, B., & Thomson, L. J. (2018). Non-clinical community interventions: a systematised review of social prescribing schemes. Arts & Health10(2), 97-123. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/17533015.2017.1334002, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17533015.2017.1334002, and https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17533015.2017.1334002.

Fancourt, D., Opher, S., & de Oliveira, C. (2020). Fixed-Effects Analyses of Time-Varying Associations between Hobbies and Depression in a Longitudinal Cohort Study: Support for Social Prescribing?. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics89(2), 111-113. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1159/000503571 and https://www.karger.com/Article/PDF/503571.

Kilgarriff-Foster, A., & O’Cathain, A. (2015). Exploring the components and impact of social prescribing. Journal of Public Mental Health, 14(3). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1108/JPMH-06-2014-0027 and https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JPMH-06-2014-0027/full/html.

Scottish Development Centre for Mental Health. (2007). Developing social prescribing and community
referrals for mental health in Scotland. Retrieved from https://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/3000/https://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/924/0054752.pdf.

South, J., Higgins, T. J., Woodall, J., & White, S. M. (2008). Can social prescribing provide the missing link?. Primary Health Care Research & Development9(4), 310-318. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1017/S146342360800087X and https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/primary-health-care-research-and-development/article/can-social-prescribing-provide-the-missing-link/9AEB484609AADB9EAA480D42E301700F.

Further Information

 

The Social Prescribing Network

49 thoughts on “How Can Social Prescribing Benefit Your Mental Health?

  1. It sounds like a supplement to traditional treatment especially for minor problems like anixety. A socially anixous person might benefit from feeling in control of possible solutions . But a proper evalution should be conducted first to assess the problem.

  2. Very good article. When I worked at the hospital here, they did have a social worker they would order for necessary cases. I think it was definitely helpful for those patients who were unaware of a lot the community programs to help them. I found that a lot of people just didn’t even know where to ask for help or that there were so many options available to them as far as donations, food pantries, shelters, employment programs and daycare. What did trouble me, was that these resources were often skipped over for substance abuse patients and they were simply shipped off to the psych ward or the police. I agree with the fact that the flaw in social prescribing for hobbies and just general healthy living is that there is zero followup.

  3. Maybe it should be called social distraction. Aside from that, I have heard of social prescribing, and if done right, then there would be great benefits.

  4. I really love the idea of social prescribing and think it is an amazing thing to think about and try to use, but I also understand the difficulty of actually getting people to follow through with it. It is too easy to say one thing but often times we never do what we keep telling ourselves we will get around to. For the people to utilize social prescribing, I feel like it would be an immense help, but I also feel like many of the people who could use its benefits do not have the energy to put it into practice.
    Thanks so much for sharing an interesting idea and your thoughts on how it comes into play!

      • This was a really interesting read, and I can see how social prescribing can assist with some issues. For example when I was younger I had a lot of stress over finances. If my GP had put me in touch with someone who could actually have helped, such as citizens advice, it might have helped me reduce my financial problems and reduce the stress. Great post!

        • Citizens Advice could do with being advertised more so people can be made aware of the kinds of support they can offer. I’ve had to signpost a lot of people to their services due to people not being aware of what they do

  5. This is great because there is defiantly not enough mental help where I live. We have a lot of homeless/mentally ill. That reminds me when I get out and about and have more positive social interactions, it really helps me mentally, like I feel like I have someone to relate to and that I’m not alone.

  6. I’ve never heard of social prescribing, so it’s great to understand what it actually means for those struggling, and the positives and negatives of this idea. Thank you for sharing

  7. I think that social prescribing could work well if well organised as you said. I experienced it first hand and suggesting only sometimes doesn’t make the cut as well as not having a follow up later on to see improvement or change the way to go. I agree that this won’t be something that can replace therapy, but if done well it can be. ahelpful tool.

  8. First, let me say that I just love any blog that includes a formal academic-style references section at the bottom. Secondly, I’m going to do my own googling on this, but I was wondering if you knew anything about social prescribing in the US. If you’ve got any resources, I’d love to see them. Thanks for sharing, I love your work.

    • I don’t really know if any recourses in the US, there healthcare system probably wouldn’t be suited to social prescribing because insurance companies wouldn’t be able to profit from it. Charity organisations would likely be the best place to start or maybe it could be something someone could try and put into place by bring charity organisations together to collaborate

  9. Thanks for sharing! I love to see more conversation around the realm of mental health. I’ve never heard of social prescribing so I really enjoyed learning about it!

  10. I’ve never heard this term before, but it sounds like the concept could be very beneficial. For me, when I’ve made time to pursue old hobbies, or even just reading a book when I’m feeling down, has been very helpful for my mental health. Thanks for shining a light on this.

  11. Having children can make it hard to do a hobby. I do find that sometimes when someone is single it is hard for them to feel motivated to do a hobby. A hobby really can be a good distraction.

      • The term social prescribing is very new to me but I can see how it would be useful for people with mental health issues. I feel like this concept is a smart one but the only thing here is the organization and ability to follow up. I think if these two areas can be dealt with, then there wouldn’t really be too many issues with the social prescribing concept. Thank you for sharing. I loved that I learnt something new from your blog today. Great post. x

  12. As a concept, social presribing sounds like a useful extra tool to assist people who are struggling with their mental health that goes beyond the medicated route. You covered some really interesting issues that arise from it that I wonder if/how the health service will deal with these, especially the need for robust tracking of patients and the initial assessment by the doctor. It’s something I would consider but probably do myself (which here in the US I’d have to do anyway as I am uninsured — and wonder if insurance companies would cover this anyway). This is an interesting development, and one I’ll be following.

  13. Really informative post. I was not aware of the term either about the meaning of it. I think I would agree with you that in some cases hobbies distract you only while actually doing them and not all the other times. Definitely they might cheere you up and add another perspective in your life but they should be used correctly.
    Thank you ❤️

  14. As someone who has always thought that hobbies were THE way to a better mental health, I say thank you for making me understand that it’s a big oversimplification. Sometimes the lack of passion is a symptom, not the issue

  15. I haven’t heard much about social prescribing until reading this. Very informative! I am a huge proponent of looking at and tackling things from a socioeconomic angle as it relates to so many other areas of our lives.

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