Food for the soul - the case for social prescribing in Covid recovery and beyond

21 July 2021 | By Erin Hughes

Vaccination programmes to immunise. Curriculum catch-ups for exams. Eat out schemes for the economy.


The Covid-19 recovery plans are varied and wide-reaching. And yet, after nearly 18 months cooped up inside, separated from loved ones, without live events, arts and culture, community choirs, birthday parties and so much more, there’s one critical ingredient missing. Where is the recovery plan for our souls?


Step up, social prescribing. This remarkably effective idea involves professionals, usually working in primary care, referring people to a range of local, ‘non-clinical’ services. From memberships with cultural organisations to music therapy, dance classes and volunteering, cultural activities offer a health prescription with a difference – they are the food of which so many souls have been starved since March 2020. And better yet, they have an array of health benefits as well.


What is social prescribing?

Social prescribing is born of an understanding that ill health is linked to a huge range of contributing factors and aims to address these through the provision of enriching activities. Prescribed activities could include volunteering, arts, group learning, gardening, befriending schemes, cookery, healthy eating, or sports.


Thanks to the wonderful variety of options available, social prescribing really can be for everybody. Schemes are designed to support anyone with a social, emotional or practical need. They can benefit those with mild or long-term health conditions, complex needs, people who are socially isolated, and those with multiple long-term conditions who frequently attend either primary or secondary health care.


Put simply, social prescribing harnesses the power of communities to generate good health.


Why social prescribing?

People’s health and wellbeing are heavily determined by social, environmental and economic factors. Unlike many other treatment options, social prescribing addresses people’s needs in a holistic way, giving individuals the power to take control of their own health.


“Those who use hospital services most can be greatly helped by social prescription”

Dr Michael Dixon, Chair of College of Medicine, past President of the NHS Clinical Commissioners and former Chair of the NHS Alliance


Social prescribing improves quality of life, mental and emotional wellbeing, reduces levels of depression and anxiety, and can even lead to improvements in pain perception and better, faster recovery from physical illness or injury.


But does it work?

In short, yes. Besides being life-changing for the people it benefits, analyses and studies suggest that social prescribing could pay for itself over 18-24 months due to reduced NHS use. There is even some evidence to suggest that it can lead to reductions in welfare benefit claims.


So, contrary to the perhaps intuitive response that the NHS can’t afford to be prescribing people community choirs and gallery passes, the reality is that the NHS can’t afford not to extend social prescribing.


As we gradually emerge from an extended period of cultural, social and community fasting, community organisations could play a fundamental role in the healing process – for physical health, mental wellbeing, and everything that makes us human.


Charities working in this area have the power to lead the way in extending the reach and impact of social prescribing. The key to success is in articulating your charity’s worth and impact, being clear and explicit about the need for your work and the benefits your charity can deliver. Health budgets are tight – charities need to put forward a compelling case for support backed by convincing evidence to get buy-in from health teams.


Does your organisation have a social prescribing scheme? Join the conversation on Twitter, @OfficialCause4         

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