Health

What is social prescribing and could it help ease the NHS mental health crisis?

NHS mental health services are buckling under demand - could social prescribing help while also reduce loneliness and improve wellbeing?

One GP surgery has set up its own allotment to prescribe gardening to patients. Image: Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

As NHS waiting lists for treatment lengthen while more and more people are suffering from mental health problems and loneliness, medical services are buckling under the pressure. 

Could social prescribing be the antidote?

GPs spend a lot of their time talking to patients about wider social issues, such as personal relationships or loneliness. Research from Citizen’s Advice found that almost a fifth of GP consultation time is spent discussing non-medical issues, with a cost of nearly £400 million to the NHS.

To free up GP time, the government hopes that trained social prescribers, as well as GPs, could write prescriptions for activities that improve their lives instead of turning straight to medical interventions. 

It almost seems too good to be true, the idea that simple activities such as making music in a local band, walking a nature trail, or joining an allotment club could help to treat some of the most complex mental ailments draining the health service. 

So what is this seemingly newfangled form of treatment, how widespread is it, and how can you access it? 

What is social prescribing?

Social prescribing is a non-medical intervention to give a patient a prescription to take part in an activity, such as exercise, socialising or spending time in nature, to tackle a specific mental or physical problem. The idea is to look at a person holistically, rather than isolating their physical or mental health from the social context in which they live. 

The activities on a social prescription are typically free, either provided by community or voluntary organisations or by the natural world — such as spending more time outdoors — so are being posited as providing crucial support amid cost of living pressures.  

Does the NHS offer social prescribing?

Social prescribing has been embraced by NHS England, which intends to build infrastructure around the concept and embed social prescribing and other community-based approaches across the NHS. Ultimately, the NHS plans for every person in England to have access to a social prescribing service through their GP practice.

This is the biggest investment in social prescribing by any country’s national health system in the world, NHS England has claimed. 

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“Rather than prescription drugs, getting people active, involved in their community in activities like park run, is great for their health and a great way for them to address issues such as loneliness, obesity and mental health” said health secretary Steve Barclay, who added that the department for health and social care is committed to investing in it. 

If you’re keen to hear what kind of social prescriptions could help you, ask your GP if they can refer you to a social prescriber who will help you to figure out what activities might benefit your health the most. 

Where have people tried social prescribing? 

In the North East of England, GPs have struggled to treat the growing numbers of people experiencing loneliness and depression, but social prescribing is trying to reduce pressures on surgeries and A&E. 

Health and council bosses in Gateshead have rolled out a new approach to enable doctors to prescribe days out, including to an allotment run by one local GP surgery, in an attempt to help those who are struggling. 

Social prescribing link worker Julie Bray was one of the first NHS social prescribers in the country. She told the BBC it’s mind-blowing “just to see the difference in some of the patients that we’ve worked with”. 

“They build their confidence up, it reduces GP appointments, it reduces A&E appointments, and it just makes them connect with the community and be resilient”, she continued. 

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GPs in Scotland have been writing “RSPB Nature Prescriptions” that include giving patients a calendar of ideas to help them connect with nature to boost mental health and wellbeing. 

After the project was trialled in the Shetland Isles and Edinburgh, over 74 per cent of patients who received nature prescriptions said they benefited from it, and 87 per cent said they would continue to turn to nature to support their health and wellbeing. 

Nature prescriptions will now be trialled in Derbyshire in England, to connect people with the Peak District National Park through prescriptions from 13 different GP practices in the area.

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