Written by Tracey Lines, Social Prescribing Project Manager, Active Partnerships
The impetus for social prescribing comes from the evidence that one in five people visiting a GP does so for reasons that aren't fundamentally medical - including loneliness or debt. Up to another one in five people live with a condition or symptoms where medicine isn't the sole, or even the best, solution.
Social prescribing enables healthcare professionals, community development workers or housing officers to refer anyone to a specialist link worker to talk about the issues they are facing and what matters to them to find the right services to support them.
Social prescribing is not a new concept. It’s been around for years, with many people describing it as the community development approach to health and wellbeing.
It seeks to address people’s needs across a number of areas such as physical activity, diet and nutrition, mental health, and social support. It is often referred to as a ‘more than medicine’ approach to health and wellbeing, based on the fact that the majority of long- term conditions can be prevented by lifestyle change alone.
Our sector now has the opportunity to become part of the growing infrastructure that supports social prescribing, which includes Arts Council England, Sport England, NHS Charities Together, The Money and Pension Service, Natural England Charities, and the National Academy of Social Prescribing.
So, what is our role?
Over recent weeks, I have been exploring social prescribing across parts of our sector and have had many interesting conversations across the country. It’s been great to hear that relationships are developing with social prescribing service. Many are providing training for link workers to enable them to advocate and signpost the people they work with to physical activity opportunities and some have developed innovative ideas to aid people to become and keep active during the pandemic.
But here’s my challenge, we know the barriers that people face when becoming active and given the vast majority of people that Link Workers work with are people with:
· with one or more long-term conditions
· who need support with their mental health
· who are lonely or isolated.
· who have complex social needs which affect their wellbeing.
Is sign posting and providing enough?
Do we need to think about the system in which people are being signposted from and too? and how do we support the system to thrive and grow and address peoples’ needs and change their behaviour?
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduced a useful analogy for thinking about behaviour change. Haidt argues that we have two sides: an emotional side (the Elephant), and an analytical, rational side (its Rider).
Haidt’s analogy has it that the Rider is rational and can therefore see a path ahead while underneath him, the Elephant provides the power for the journey. However, the Elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct.
For a more visual approach to describing this analogy, watch this short video narrated by Dan Heath.
Using this analogy, it’s clear that if someone has decided that physical activity matters to them and, is signposted to an activity or considers building physical activity into their day it can be hard for them.
So, what could we do to help people to keep in control of their Elephant? How can we support the rational Rider who might know where they want to go, but how do we motivate them to take the first step and keep going? and most importantly, how do we help people stay on course, shorten the distance and remove any obstacles. In other words’ How do we make it easy?
To enable us to play a vital role in this fast -growing area of work it is important to connect the dots and take a system approach, to find ways to understand and influence the numerous interconnected factors to support and develop easy hurdle free pathways that support people to become and stay active.
Do we need to consider how we work with cross sector partners? How do we build physical activity within their working practice and support them not just to advocate it but to take part themselves? And most importantly, how can
we work with local communities? who are the experts in what they need and are therefore best placed to come up with and try out local solutions and responses.
By working collectively to align our actions, to be more interconnected and impactful and consider a systems approach by working with the growing infrastructure that supports social prescribing. We could cultivate a thriving physical activity system within social prescribing that really changes lives.