A study will investigate whether social prescribing can help reduce mental health symptoms in children on waiting lists for treatment
“Social prescribing has the potential to support young people while they wait, by providing access to a range of creative and social activities that could enhance their confidence, self-esteem and social support networks.” Dr Daisy Fancourt, associate professor at UCL and study lead
Children and teenagers with mental health problems will be prescribed activities such as surfing, rollerskating and gardening to see if they can help reduce anxiety.
A University College London study involving 600 children aged 11 to 18 in England will look at whether social prescribing helps to improve mental wellbeing. The children, who will be drawn from the waiting lists of NHS mental health trusts, will be prescribed activities such as dance, music, sport and exercise and attending youth clubs.
If the trial, funded by the Prudence Trust, is successful, the NHS may decide to make such activities available across England as a way of helping the many thousands of young people facing delays of several months in accessing formal treatment.
“Young people’s mental health is one of the greatest challenges facing the NHS,” said Dr Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor at UCL. “Currently many young people referred to child and adolescent mental health services face long waits, during which time more than three-quarters experience a deterioration in their mental health.
“Social prescribing has the potential to support young people while they wait, by providing access to a range of creative and social activities that could enhance their confidence, self-esteem and social support networks.”
Fancourt and her colleagues will assess how much young people participate, the feasibility of making such activities available and the costs involved. Participants will be able to choose which pursuits they want to try, aided by a link worker or “buddy”, in conjunction with 10 NHS mental health trusts.
The approach has been tested before in a small-scale trial conducted in Luton, Sheffield and Brighton and Hove in 2018-2020 but the UCL-led study will be the largest yet. The of that pilot found involvement improved young people’s personal and mental wellbeing, especially among those who were feeling the worst at the outset, and reduced loneliness.
GPs have been increasingly using “social prescribing” involving activities such as gardening and dancing as an alternative to antidepressants for adult patients who are lonely or depressed. Research published in BMJ Open earlier this month raised serious doubts about its effectiveness, however.
But Fancourt said that social prescribing had “enormous potential” and could “help address determinants of mental illness, decrease stigma and shame sometimes associated with mental health problems, and give young people choice and control of their care”.
Olly Parker, head of external affairs at the charity YoungMinds, said: “Social prescribing – involving activities like exercise, gardening and music – is a really exciting way of improving mental wellbeing. It looks at people holistically and tries to find non-medicalised ways of helping them find a way through the challenges they may be experiencing.”
Since the pandemic there has been a surge in children and young people seeking help for anxiety and depression. The use of social prescribing as a first step to help them while they wait treatment is to be welcomed. We know that exercise and fresh air provide a boost to mental wellbeing, so if activities such as dancing and roller-skating can reduce anxiety and depression before young people reach the stage of needing medication or therapy, that can only be a good thing. An earlier pilot provided encouraging results, but this is the first large-scale study to look at the potential benefits of social prescribing for young people. We await the results with interest. If this proves to be effective, it should be supported to scale. Social prescribing needs to be interpreted in the right way, traditional clinical measures of success may not be appropriate to apply.