A new report from Barnardo’s says that current models of social prescribing are focused on adults rather than children
“Children and young people have been shut inside due to Covid, isolated from school, family, friends and the community, and now there’s the cost-of-living situation where families are struggling to afford essentials, let alone after-school clubs. They’ve been isolated from community assets – nature spaces, clubs, activities – which we know is having an impact on health and development." Becky Rice, author, The Missing Link: Social Prescribing for Children and Young People
The government should introduce a new social prescribing strategy for young people in England, the children’s charity Barnardo’s has said.
In a new report, The Missing Link: Social Prescribing for Children and Young People, Barnardo’s argues that any money spent on helping young people have access to activities in the community could lead to nearly double the savings on dealing with mental health problems further down the line.
Social prescribing refers to non-clinical treatments such as walking, cycling, joining an art club or attending a dancing class as a way of addressing mental health problems such as anxiety and low mood. In the past few years there has been a big increase in the number of children with severe mental health problems: in the year to March 2023 there were 21,555 urgent referrals to mental health crisis teams, up 46% on 2022. According to the report, approximately one in six children, and one in four young people, have a probable mental health disorder, with impacts on health, development and education that can last a lifetime.
Barnardo’s calculated that every £1 spent on social prescribing delivers long-term benefits of about £1.80 in terms of reduced pressure on the mental health services as well as indirect impacts on antisocial behaviour, A&E attendance, housing problems and children being taken into care.
The report says that current models of social prescribing and training for link workers are inconsistent and fragmented across the country, and that they are focused on adults rather than children.
Lynn Perry, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, said she had seen through the charity’s work with children and young people that “this can really help to turn their lives around” and prevent a need for clinical NHS services.
“Children and young people are having to wait for months, even years in many cases, to get the help and support they need when they are struggling with their mental health. Their condition often just intensifies while their names sit on long waiting lists,” she said.
“That’s why we’re calling on the government to put the backbones of funding and infrastructure in place to ensure social prescribing is available to all children and young people who need it throughout the country.”
Social prescribing, which is already in operation in 11 local authorities in England, involves a GP, teachers or local authority referring an individual to a link worker who can then match the person with appropriate local services.
Social prescribing is particularly important for families who feel socially excluded, Becky Rice, the author of the Barnardo’s report, told the Guardian: “Children and young people have been shut inside due to Covid, isolated from school, family, friends and the community, and now there’s the cost-of-living situation where families are struggling to afford essentials, let alone after-school clubs. They’ve been isolated from community assets – nature spaces, clubs, activities – which we know is having an impact on health and development.”
The report says that despite increased investment in services, children and young people’s mental health “only receives around 1% of all health and care funding.” It adds: “Our research shows that social prescribing is an effective early intervention for children and young people experiencing a range of symptoms including anxiety, social isolation, and low mood.” Of a sample of 44 children and young people using the Outcomes Rating Scale to measure the impact of a social prescribing service between October 2022 and June 2023, 66% made a statistically significant improvement, the report says.
One child who used the LINK Cumbria social prescribing service said: “LINK has been a huge help for me. My anxiety was awful, I wouldn’t leave the house or talk to people, my attendance was awful, I couldn’t bring myself to go in. It’s had such a positive impact on my life, I can do stuff now, my attendance picked up, I can go outside. It’s sad to know that others in my position don’t have access. I never thought I’d come this far, from where I was to a college place.”
Social prescribing, which can involve activities such as joining a cycling club or a gardening group, has proven value in helping adults with mental health problems. The Barnardo’s report shows that it can also be beneficial to children and young people who are struggling with anxiety and depression. The charity is right to say that current social prescribing models are focused largely on adults, and it is difficult to argue with their finding that, at a time of high rates of mental ill-health among the under-25 age group, extending the offer to children and young people would both improve that group’s mental health and lead to long-term financial savings.