Social prescribing

This information is about social prescribing, also known as community referral. Social prescribing helps to connect people to community services and groups local to them that can help to support their mental and physical health.

Many people can benefit from social prescribing, including people with a mental illness who are already having other treatments.

We hope you will find this resource helpful if:

  • you want to know more about social prescribing
  • you want support from your local community to improve your health and wellbeing
  • you have a friend or family member who could benefit from being part of a local group or activity.

Disclaimer

This resource provides information, not advice.  

The content in this resource is provided for general information only. It is not intended to, and does not, amount to advice which you should rely on. It is not in any way an alternative to specific advice. 

You must therefore obtain the relevant professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action based on the information in this resource.

If you have questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider without delay.  

If you think you are experiencing any medical condition, you should seek immediate medical attention from a doctor or other professional healthcare provider.  

Although we make reasonable efforts to compile accurate information in our resources and to update the information in our resources, we make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in this resource is accurate, complete or up to date. 

Social prescribing helps to connect people with mental or physical health problems with non-medical services and activities near them. This can help to improve their physical and mental health1.

Although it is called ‘prescribing’, there is no medication involved in social prescribing. It is called social prescribing because you are given, or ‘prescribed’, activities that you might be interested in. You do not have to do these activities if you don’t want to.

You can do social prescribing alongside other treatments, like medications or therapies. Social prescribing can help add to the effect of any treatments you are already receiving. Social prescribing can also help you to meet people who share your interests.

Here is how you might be offered social prescribing:

  • Your GP or community mental health team (CMHT) refers you to a link worker.
  • You meet up with the link worker or speak to them over the phone for up to an hour. They talk with you to find out about your life and what is important to you.
  • The link worker tells you about local groups and activities you might be interested in.

The link worker shows you how you can contact them, or contacts them for you.

Link workers are individuals who come from a range of different backgrounds. Unlike a doctor, they support with non-medical issues.

Link workers try to support the wellbeing of people with mental and physical health conditions by helping them to overcome barriers they might be facing. A link worker might support someone with practical challenges, for example:

  • debt
  • housing
  • getting access to food.

To do this they might work with other organisations like debt advice services, housing services and food banks.

Link workers can also support people with emotional and social challenges, for example:

  • isolation
  • low self-esteem
  • difficulties building confidence.

This is where a link worker might use social prescribing.

With social prescribing, you will meet with a link worker in person or speak to them over the phone. During this conversation they will ask you what you are interested in and what matters to you. They will use this information to suggest groups, activities and services you might be interested in. These activities might be things like gardening groups or exercise clubs.

A link worker should work with you carefully to help create a plan and set goals for yourself around trying new things. They won’t tell you what to do, but they will support you by suggesting things that might help your mental health and wellbeing. They might also be able to come with you to a group or event if you need support. Speak to your link worker to find out if this is possible.

Below is an example of how social prescribing can work, using a fictional character called John:

John has been struggling with his anxiety lately.

John asks his GP if he can see a link worker.

Ellie, the local link worker meets with John and asks him,

John tells Ellie about his life. Ellie finds out that John enjoys reading, gardening, and looking after his dogs.

Ellie tells John about a book club at the local library, a gardening group on the local high street, and a local 'man and his dog' walking group.

John says that he thinks he would like to join the gardening group. Ellie provides John with the contact details of the gardening group.

John is nervous about contacting the group but finds the group leader to be very welcoming. He goes along to the group and finds the gardening very relaxing.

John finds that he is not as anxious on days when he goes to the group. John notices that he is seeing his GP less often.

After several months with the group, John's anxiety has improved to the point that he feels able to take on the responsibility of welcoming new members to the group.

Social prescribing can be used by anyone who:

  • has a physical or mental health condition, or multiple conditions
  • is lonely, or cut off from other people
  • is facing practical issues that affect their wellbeing, eg. financial or housing issues
  • is a carer
  • is experiencing domestic violence.

Social prescribing can help you keep well, or it can help you during periods when you are not feeling so good. Many people who take part in social prescribing have been shown to spend less time in hospital, and may see their GPs less often4.

Social prescribing can help you to:

  • stay well for longer if you have a physical or mental health problem (this may mean needing fewer appointments and hospital admissions)
  • feel a sense of purpose
  • feel more positive
  • feel less anxious or depressed
  • sleep better
  • feel more confident in day-to-day life, including when making friends and applying for jobs
  • feel in control
  • feel able to cope with stress more easily
  • feel less lonely
  • improve your physical health, for example by reducing your blood pressure2

Social prescribing can happen alongside any other treatments you have already started2. However, it is not supposed to replace any regular medical treatment you have. If you are thinking of stopping any of your regular medical treatment, please speak to your doctor.

Example

“I enjoyed being outside in the sun as I didn't get out much at all. I also enjoyed the social aspect of it and got to meet new people. It was also helpful in my journey down the road of recovery. It made me feel like I could do more things by myself afterwards.”

Member, The Warneford Meadow, Oxford

The Warneford Meadow is a three-acre wild nature site adjoining the Warneford Psychiatric Hospital in Oxfordshire. Hospital and community patients go there together to look at the trees and plants, and connect with the natural world3.

Every community will offer different activities. These can include:

  • volunteering
  • spending time in nature
  • walking groups
  • sports clubs
  • arts clubs
  • gardening groups1.

These are just a few examples. Your link worker will help you to find out what is available in your area.

What activities you are offered will depend on what you need and want. For example, you may find it helpful to be part of a community project, or you might prefer to take part in something on your own. Social prescribing focuses on what suits you, and what you can manage at your stage of recovery.

If you are interested in social prescribing, ask your GP if you can speak to a link worker. If you are seeing a mental health team, your care coordinator may be able to refer you to a link worker.

Every community is different, so different things will be available in different areas. If there is no local group that suits you, your link worker may be able to help you set up a new group.

If your area does not have a link worker yet, ask your GP if they know of any similar services.

Example

Katie was referred by her GP to the Dumfries House Health and Wellbeing Centre in Ayrshire, Scotland. The centre provides complementary therapies like reflexology, acupuncture and hypnotherapy, and is run by the Prince’s Foundation. Katie was referred to the centre for help with chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia, as well as symptoms thought to be related to the menopause.

“Before I was referred there, I was feeling socially isolated. I’d lost my job through ill health and the pain made me reluctant to go out, so I started losing contact with many of my friends. My self-confidence took a huge knock and it was hard to live with the thought that this was my life from now on. The courses have changed my outlook and helped me to cope with my life and living with chronic pain.”

You can refer a family member or friend to see a link worker. You could also show them this information or just let them know what a link worker is and how they might be able to help.

You might want to go with your family member or friend to see the link worker, or they might ask you to come with them. If you do this, let your family member or friend talk to the link worker themselves. This will help the link worker to find out what really matters to them.

Remember, a person will usually be much more likely to join in with a group or activity if they arrange it themselves.

We all have different identities. For example, one person might have all of the following identities:

  • a sister in a family
  • a friend in a friendship group
  • a gardener in an allotment
  • a football player in a team.

It has been shown that if you have more ‘identities’ in your community, you tend to feel better about yourself, and can cope better with challenges5.

A study in 2015 looked at people who had joined an Australian football club. The study showed that being part of the club helped people with their:

  • feelings of connectedness
  • overall wellbeing
  • employment opportunities
  • physical health
  • likelihood of getting involved in other social groups.

The same positive results were seen in the players, volunteers and supporters of the football club6.

Social prescribing can help to increase the number of identities you have within your community, by getting you involved in new activities like the football club mentioned in the example above. It can also help to increase your sense of belonging and wellbeing, just like it did for the people who took part in the football club. The sense of connection people feel being involved in groups like this has also been shown to improve their physical health7.

Example

Clinicians at Salford CAMHS (Children and Adolescents’ Mental Health Service) and STARLAC (Salford Therapeutic Advisory and Referral service for Looked After Children) asked young people what they thought could be improved about their services.

Young people commented that the walls of hospital buildings are often boring, and they wanted to see more artwork on them. Salford CAMHS and STARLAC responded by forming a group for young people with The Lowry, a local theatre. The group met with artists over six sessions to learn how to draw cartoons, create drama and write poetry.

They have continued to meet virtually during the pandemic and are currently working on a ‘life in lockdown’ piece with The Lowry. The aims of this piece are to promote mental wellbeing and reduce feelings of isolation during COVID-19.

Here are some of the things the young people had to say about the project:

“I have really enjoyed coming to this group. It has helped me with my confidence a lot … I think the people that come are nice.”
“I have enjoyed coming to these sessions as it has helped me to relax and gave me something to look forward to. I have made a friend. The clay modelling at the start was my favourite…”
“You forget your worries when you come here, it’s an uplifting place to be. There’s a sense of community, where we work together to support each other.”

At the moment, COVID-19 can make it more challenging to meet new people or to join a new group or club.

Some community groups and clubs now meet online. However, others have made changes so that their members can continue to meet safely in person. If you are meeting in person, you might be encouraged to socially distance, wash your hands regularly or use protective equipment. By following the rules on meeting with others, everyone can stay as safe as possible.

To find out which activities have been impacted by COVID-19, speak to your link worker. You can do this face-to-face, on the phone or through a video call.

In Katherine’s example below, you can see how social prescribing can still take place despite the challenges of COVID-19.

Example

“My psychiatrist referred me to the Resilience Network in Camden and it addressed my needs in a holistic way. The Resilience Network offers courses to support individuals to take greater control of their health. The courses involve self-development, group learning, coffee mornings, mindfulness and yoga plus many more which are all delivered via Zoom or Teams. They also offer walking groups and lunch delivery. I have a link worker who I connect with on a weekly basis. This involvement has led to a range of positive health and wellbeing outcomes for myself including a better quality of life.”

Katherine, who was referred to a link worker by her psychiatrist

If you are unable to meet with a link worker in your area, you may be able to find local groups of interest at the following websites:

This information was produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Public Engagement Editorial Board (PEEB).

Expert authors: Dr Gemma Buston and Dr Katherine Kennet

© July 2021 Royal College of Psychiatrists

1. The King’s Fund. What is social prescribing? The King’s Fund, 2017. Available at: link [accessed March 2020]

2. Chatterjee HJ, Camic PM, Lockyer B, Thomson LJM. Non-clinical community interventions: a systematised review of social prescribing schemes. Arts & Health 2018; 10(2): 97-123.

3. Royal College of Psychiatry. Position statement on Social Prescribing. Royal College of Psychiatry, 2020.

4. NHS England. Social Prescribing. NHS England, 2020. Available at: link [accessed March 2020]

5. Haslam C, Cruwys S, Haslam S, Dingle G, Xue-Ling Chang. Groups 4 Health: Evidence that a social identity intervention that builds and strengthens social group membership improves mental health, Journal of Affective Disorder. 2016;194:188-195.

6. Centre for Sport and Social Impact. Value of a Community Football Club. La Trobe University, 2015. Available at: link [accessed May 2021]

7. Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T., Dingle, G. A., Haslam, S. A.. The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the Social Cure. New York: Routledge. 2018.

© July 2021 Royal College of Psychiatrists