Healing Through Human Connection

The United Kingdom is making a unique effort to prescribe social and creative activities

Music, poetry, dance, and art have played an important part in our mental and physical well-being throughout history. According to studies commissioned by the UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, “Participation in the arts leads to significant improvements in health, that not only boost self-esteem, but also reduce feelings of isolation and exclusion.”

Those benefits have led to a profoundly different type of prescription in the UK—social prescribing. People who are feeling lonely, depressed, or anxious may be prescribed an art class or community dance program, rather than a pharmaceutical.

The National Health Service (NHS), England’s publicly funded healthcare system, currently employs more than 1,000 link workers (somewhat similar to social workers in the United States). Social prescribing link workers help people to identify the source of their struggles and, using this knowledge, offer advice and guidance to fulfill their needs. They connect people with community groups, volunteer agencies, and other services that can provide practical and emotional support.

A Time-Tested Treatment

Social prescribing as a concept is hardly revolutionary. The therapeutic value of community support and the arts has been recorded as far back as 400 B.C., when the Greek theatre of Epidaurus was built as a place for pilgrims to honor Asclepius, the god of medicine. “They came to cleanse their souls with therapeutic waters and with theatre,” said one commentator of the time.

Music, poetry, and art have always offered solace during difficult times in our lives, and indeed, some of the most beloved poetry anthologies deal with topics such as emotional distress, loss, and bereavement. Many of humankind’s greatest artistic achievements were born from our struggle to express complex thoughts or feelings. As Georgia O’Keeffe, once said, “I found I could say things with colors and shapes which I couldn’t say in any other way—things I had no words for.”

The beauty of creative expression, used as a healing methodology, is that it does not rely on talent. Even those who think they don’t possess any natural artistic ability can benefit mentally, emotionally, and spiritually from the creative process. Indeed, these activities offer a lifeline for those who are facing acute difficulty: including the aging population who experience debilitating isolation and those suffering from dementia. Many participants say that activities and opportunities such as these help to lift them out of their darkest depression, keep their minds active, and regain a sense of purpose.

The benefits of programs such as social prescribing cannot be underestimated for their ability to not only increase positive outcomes, but more importantly, to prevent disease and enhance overall wellbeing.

An Investment in Community

NHS-England projects that over 900,000 people will be referred for social prescribing over the next two years. Its goal is to improve the lives of more than 2.5 million people by the end of 2024. This is the largest investment in social prescribing by any national health service.

It may not surprise you to hear that a large percentage of doctor visits are not related to health issues. Instead, they involve underlying social issues such as debt, loneliness, emotional distress, and isolation. The gulf between human need and social support has been growing for decades, as many national services and programs are cut due to shrinking social care budgets, while social isolation and shrinking personal networks become defining qualities of modern life. The NHS has been exploring ways to bridge the gap through social prescribing, allowing local agencies and general practitioners to refer patients to link workers.

Social prescribing is effective for a wide range of people, helping them to:

  • cope with or prevent mental health issues
  • live with one or more existing long-term conditions
  • bridge the gulf of loneliness
  • reduce stress and anxiety
  • overcome complex social needs affecting their health

Social prescribing goes beyond art programs. In London, social prescribing is instrumental in building and supporting community resilience by linking those in need to support services that can help them with housing, employment, finance, and social welfare. This need has never been greater than during the COVID-19 pandemic, when large numbers of people found themselves displaced, unemployed, and completely isolated, literally overnight.

Currently, the majority of link workers are employed by community sector organizations, who are attempting to fill the numerous gaps in social care. They help people to find therapeutic outlets through gardening, befriending, cookery courses, arts classes, music therapy, healthy eating advice, sports, and volunteering opportunities.

Involvement in group activities such as these can have a profoundly positive effect on patients: particularly on those suffering from mental illness, or those identified as being at risk of developing mental health problems. An NHS review showed an average 28 percent reduction in demand for general practitioner services and a 24 percent fall in emergency room visits for patients who participated in a social prescribing scheme.

This is not to say that the arts are some kind of catchall medicinal panacea, but they do hold the promise of helping to elevate people from their personal struggles—giving them opportunities to connect with others who share and understand what they are going through. And though some researchers have downplayed the benefits of social prescribing—citing the low number of small-scale organizations from which to study, and a tendency towards reporting bias from participants—it is hard to ignore the NHS review, and the growing number of testimonies from those who have benefited from these interventions.

This article was first published in Radiant Life magazine.

Lorrie Kelly has worked as a freelance health and medical journalist for over 25 years in the United States and United Kingdom. Her work has featured in publications such as The Sunday Times, Nursing Times, and Practical Patient Care. In her spare time, Lorrie is a keen beekeeper, interested in pollinator conservation and re-wilding.
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