Access to social prescribing services must be expanded to help tackle the mental health consequences of loneliness and isolation caused by COVID-19, says a new report published by two Medical Royal Colleges.
The pandemic has caused loneliness – which is often linked to mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem – to reach record levels in the UK . The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows 86% of women and 74% of men reported being lonely at the end of January.
Social prescribing sees patients prescribed activities – such as art classes, educational or training courses, and group gardening projects – to improve their physical and mental wellbeing and is crucial in combating loneliness and its mental health consequences.
A new report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Occupational Therapists shows that many people who would benefit from social prescribing stand to miss out as services are not evenly available across the country, largely due to variability in priority and spending between local areas.
Dr Katherine Kennet, lead author of the report and sustainability lead at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:
"COVID-19 has shown just how damaging loneliness and isolation can be to our mental health, but social prescribing can play a big part in supporting people’s recovery as we move out of the pandemic.
“Social prescribing provides an exciting opportunity for mental health services as part of their ambition to secure the best outcomes for their patients, but it must be available as a treatment for everyone, regardless of where they live.
“It is crucial social prescribing is used to complement existing treatments and should not be used as a substitute for talking therapies or medical interventions.”
While there has already been a good start in expanding service provision, with NHS England exceeding their target of recruiting 1,000 link workers who work with patients to place them in social prescribing activities, the impact of COVID-19 means the original ambitions in the NHS Long-term Plan need to be enhanced and accelerated.
The Colleges are also calling for commissioners to include social prescribing in community and inpatient mental health services and not limit programmes to primary care only, as people’s mental and physical health stand to benefit from social prescribing schemes.
Karin Orman, Assistant Director- Professional Practice at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, said:
“The Royal College of Occupational Therapists support the development of social prescribing across all health and care settings as a key component to enable people to participate in social activities.
“The importance of social participation on maintaining good mental health has been amplified during the pandemic. Social prescribing clearly supports people’s wellbeing and occupational therapists can work with those whose needs are more complex and require a more tailored approach to actively engage and participate in social activities.
“For that reason, occupational therapists and psychiatrists are obvious partners to develop, build and support social prescribing initiatives within their local teams and services.”
While loneliness itself is not a mental disorder, people living with a mental illness are more likely to experience it and those who are lonely are more likely to go on to develop mental health disorders.
Michelle, who started to engage with the Myplace project Brockholes to help with her anxiety and depression and the isolation of lockdown, said:
“I’ve lived with anxiety and depression for 20 years, but lockdown made everything worse because I was so isolated and so lonely.
“I felt even more disconnected and was living with thoughts of self-harm and suicide. But my life took a turn for the better when I started engaging with Brockholes Nature Reserve.
“Their online Zoom meetings and outdoor sessions at the Reserve have helped me so much. I don’t feel lonely anymore and I feel like have a future and a life worth living. I’m even going back to work next month which is something I never thought would happen.”