Social Prescribing: What It Is And How It Might Help

Social prescribing is part of NHS England’s long-term plan. Currently, around 60% of areas in England have social prescribing schemes but this number is growing all the time.  NHS England have committed to increasing the number of ‘link workers’ who can help to facilitate social prescribing, over the next few years as part of Universal Personalised Care.

Social Prescribing: What It Is And How It Might Help

What Is Social Prescribing?

Social prescribing is about connecting people to services and community groups that can offer them practical and emotional support.

One definition developed in 2016 is: [social prescribing is] enabling healthcare professionals to refer patients to a link worker, to co-design a non-clinical social prescription to improve their health and wellbeing. What this means in practice is that a healthcare professional, such as our GP, can refer us to a link worker. This worker is similar to a support worker. Following a referral, they would meet us to have a chat about the sorts of things we enjoy, and would then aim to connect us to opportunities in our local area that we might find helpful.

How Does Social Prescribing Relate To Us?

Social prescribing is said to work for a wide range of people. This can include those who are lonely, those who need support with their mental health and those with social needs which affect their wellbeing.

Although social prescribing won’t be suitable for everyone, when it works well it can help us to access a range of local agencies and to re-connect us with our communities.

How Do We Access It?

The best way to access social prescribing is through our GP. Although not all areas currently offer social prescribing, our GP should know if it is available to us because link workers are often based within GP surgeries.

Where social prescribing schemes have been up and running for a while, there are often lots of other professionals and local authority staff who can refer to us to a link worker. This can include fire services, pharmacies, job centres, housing associations, police service, other health professionals, hospital discharge schemes and social workers.

What Sort Of Activities Might It Lead To?

The specific activities that social prescribing can lead to will depend on where we live and what our interests are. Social prescribing is all about linking us in with networks, communities, and opportunities within our local area, and due to the nature of community and voluntary services, the groups and opportunities that exist will vary depending on where we live.

Some of the things that social prescribing might lead to are things like local arts networks, sporting opportunities, community groups such as Mum and baby groups, knit and natter groups, or community kitchens. There might be a recovery college in our area offering a variety of classes. We might want to get back into education in some way – perhaps we want to have another go at our Maths of English GCSEs or learn British Sign Language. Some of us might be looking for some more practical support such as debt counselling or housing support. We might have a passion for green spaces and be a talented tomato-grower – our link worker could connect us with outdoor opportunities where we could meet others with similar passions and interests.

There are all sorts of opportunities which could be available to us. Our link worker should have good knowledge of our local area and the things that are available to us, so after having a chat to us about the sorts of things we like doing and what kind of things we might like to get involved with, they should be able to offer us some guidance and support us to attend anything that we want to try out.

It’s Person-Centred

Social prescribing is person-centred. What this means, is that rather than a clinician meeting with us and telling us what we need based on our diagnosis or social demographics, they have a conversation with us about how we’re currently managing and what we want out of the service. Do we want to work on adding more activities in our week? Perhaps we want to start volunteering so that we can build up experience to go back to work? Maybe we want to meet other people who are in a similar position to us?

We all have different likes, dislikes, needs, and wants, so we will all find different things beneficial. By meeting with our link worker individually to discuss what’s available in our area, we should be able to access tailored advice on what might be helpful for us rather than trying to fit ourselves into a ‘one size fits all’ model. This can help us feel so much more in control of our care and our lives.

Background Support

Link workers might offer to support us to a new group or activity the first time, or first few times, that we go. Walking into a room that we’ve never been to before can be scary, and getting to the point where we can take a lot of effort and preparation.

When we’re out of the habit of getting up and getting dressed, it can be difficult to re-instate a routine into our lives. Our link worker might be able to help us work out what time to take our medication and go to bed so that we can get up at a reasonable time without feeling like a zombie. We might have to practice getting up, getting washed, and doing something with our hair because it might be quite a while since we’ve done it. After that, we could have to re-learn how to use public transport or go for a few quiet trips in our car to feel more confident driving again. All of these things can challenge us before we even arrive at the venue.

Background support to manage these things, and having someone by our side when we first go to a new place can be invaluable and can allow us to access things and try things out that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to manage.

Links With The Community

One of the biggest ways that social prescribing can have an impact on our lives is by helping us to create links with our community. Through linking us up with different organisations, projects, and groups going on in our area, we can meet others who live near us. Not only does this get us out of the house but it can also help us to create relationships with others in our area. This informal support can allow us to feel better supported on a wider scale. It can help us to find long-lasting support in places outside of clinical settings, which are likely to be less time-limited. This can also help us to feel less lonely and isolated which can improve our wellbeing.

 We Can Learn Stuff

Depending on the sorts of activities we engage with as part of social prescribing, we can learn all sorts of skills which can help to increase our confidence and give us a sense of purpose. Sometimes this learning might be more formal in that we go somewhere with the specific aim of learning something, for example, if we go to a craft group who have a monthly session with an expert then we would expect to learn from that expert. Alongside any formal learning that we do, we’re also likely to pick up lots of skills more informally, sometimes called soft skills. This can include things like improving our small talk and ability to read people, time management, getting ourselves up and out of the house, managing our medication around our new routine, balancing our energy levels, and overcoming our fear of meeting new people.

Peer Support

Engaging in new activities can help us to find peer support – support from others who go to the same activities as us. Though there are some groups with the primary aim of acting as ‘peer support’, such as peer support groups or groups for specific issues such as grief support or carers support, we can also feel supported by our peers in groups and activities that have nothing to do with mental health. For example, we might strike up a friendship with someone who we volunteer with, we could find that we grew up in the village next door to someone in our swimming group or we could encounter a fellow film fanatic.

Support doesn’t have to mean sitting down and talking about all of our problems. It could be as simple as having a friendly face in a group that we start going to so that we feel more able to keep going or meeting someone with similar interests to us who might want to meet up at weekends or go to events related to the thing we’re interested in. Everyone has ‘stuff’ in their lives, and as friendships form and we become closer to others we might find that we naturally begin to mutually support one another.

Try New Things

The support offered by social prescribing can allow us to try out new things. We might not like everything we try – and that’s okay! Not every new thing we try will be a success, but hopefully, the support from our link worker can help us to explore our interests and to find one or two things that we do like and would like to continue attending even after we’ve been discharged.

Connection To The Great Outdoors

Some of the activities that are available to us might involve green spaces. Whether it be a specific ecotherapy project, a horticulture project, a walking group, or volunteering somewhere green (perhaps with The Conservation Volunteers, for example), getting back in touch with nature can do wonders for our wellbeing. Depression has a nasty habit of hiding us away from the world, trapping us within the four walls of our house or our bedroom. Having support to get outside and get involved with outdoor projects can help to re-connect us with the world around us and to feel fresh air on our face and mud on our hands again.

How Does It Help Us?

Social prescribing can have a whole range of benefits. Aside from those mentioned already, it can help us to feel more able to manage our life. We might begin to feel a greater sense of resilience, our self-esteem can be improved and we may feel as though we have a better quality of life.

Joining community groups can provide more sustained support than anything clinical that we might be offered. Support through the NHS is often time- or session-limited. We might only be able to access certain services for 6-8 sessions or for 12 months, for example. Community groups don’t usually have such rigid cut-offs. Some groups might be relatively short-term – for example if we choose to join an 8-week pottery course, then after those 8 weeks the course will end, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationships we’ve made with other members of the group also have to end. We might have made new friends who we go and find a pottery wheel with every other weekend.

Some groups will be more long-term. For example, if we join a reading group at our local library or a football team at the leisure centre then they might happen at regular intervals throughout the year.

Once we have things to go to that we are beginning to enjoy, we have a reason to get out of the house. This means that we have to be managing our meals and sleep well enough to have the energy to do so. We might begin to shower more regularly and make sure that we have clean clothes more often. Shaving could become part of our routine again, and we might choose to freshen up our hair or nails. Taking care of our body and our appearance is likely to feel more important to us again. Though this can be overwhelming, it can also help us to feel much better within ourselves.

Social prescribing is a jargon-y term for helping us to reconnect with life, meet new people, embed ourselves within our community, and to explore our interests and the things we might enjoy.

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