Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges of our time, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds . Between April 2020 and February 2021, , levels of loneliness in Great Britain increased, from 5% of people surveyed reporting that they feel lonely ‘often’ and ‘always’ to 7.2% . This increase is equivalent to 3.7 million adults.
Loneliness is more than just a sense of isolation. It is associated with an increased risk of mortality, disability and cognitive decline. There’s also an economic impact. In 2017 researchers at the London School of Economics estimated that health care and local services related to loneliness costs £6,000 per person for a decade of an older person’s life. But it’s not only older people and related services that are affected – the Co-Op estimate that loneliness-related ill health and sick days cost UK employers £2.5 billion every year.
Social prescribing provides a way to reverse these trends, offering an opportunity to connect people to their local community, and help them form relationships. The NHS has committed to increasing the number of social prescribing link workers to help address loneliness and isolation. Link workers give people time, focusing on ‘what matters to me’ and taking a holistic approach to people’s health and wellbeing. They connect people to community groups and sources of advice as well as practical and emotional support. The activities are typically provided by voluntary and community sector organisations, and may include volunteering, arts activities, group learning, gardening, befriending, cookery, healthy eating advice and sports. In essence, social prescribing helps people manage their needs in a way that suits them.
When social prescribing works well, people can be referred to social prescribing link workers from within their local area. Referrers could be healthcare professionals, for example, in general practice, pharmacies and hospital discharge teams or referrals could come from other organisations such as the fire service, police, job centres, social care services, housing associations and voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations. People can also refer themselves.
The National Academy for Social Prescribing is supporting a number of projects run by voluntary, community, faith, social enterprise and third sector groups through the Thriving Communities Fund. Thriving Communities is a national support programme run by NASP in partnership with Arts Council England, Historic England and Natural England, NHS England and Improvement, Sport England, the Money and Pensions Service, and NHS Charities Together. It aims to support communities impacted by COVID-19 in England. Here are just a few examples: In Leeds, arts and social change organisation, Space2, is working with the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation and Feel Good Factor, plus a range of community partners across the city, on a social prescribing programme to deliver activities which tackle social isolation, improve wellbeing, and support communities.
“Supporting people who are socially isolated is in our DNA”, says Emma Tregidden, Joint CEO . “We understand that some people are extremely vulnerable, and difficult to reach, so we’ve developed a blended approach to encourage them to join in with activities – from Zoom and face-to-face meetings to delivering activity packs to people in their own homes.”
Helix Arts will be supporting young carers in North Tyneside through a range of activities that aim to boost skills, experience, social agency, health, and address loneliness and social isolation. “Carers in our community have been adversely hit by COVID-19. Especially unpaid carers, those who are often forgotten about and not accessing the support they need”, says Cheryl Gavin, Director of Helix Arts. The pandemic has had such a significant impact on carers, this programme will increase capacity to support them through and beyond.”
Arts on referral
Thriving Communities Bristol is a cross-city partnership being led by creativeShift, who have been delivering arts on referral as part of social prescribing for the past five years. The Thriving Communities project will build on their learning, and work with partners to expand the offer. Participants from programmes speak about the sessions enabling them to meet new people and feel more connected to their communities: “I joined because I was isolating myself through depression so this gave me a chance to gain confidence, getting back out and socialising with people….it has made me happier”.
The Bureau Centre for the Arts are running the Thrive Blackburn and Darwen project. Through the creation of a social prescribing hub venue at the Bureau and a co-created outdoor space, partners will link arts provision with green recovery. “Loneliness and social isolation were already a real issue for lots of people in our town and people who felt lonely before Covid tell us that they feel even more so now,” says Cath Ford, Director of the Bureau Centre. “Nearly all of the everyday events and activities that might keep people in contact with others have been paused and as we slowly begin to emerge, we hope our Thriving Communities programme will offer simple and creative ways for people to reconnect and provide moments of companionship, laughter and hope.”
The Thriving Communities programme will also help to raise the profile of existing projects happening across the country, as part of NASP’s strategic objectives to make some noise and spread what works.
Musical Memories is a not-for-profit organisation based in Ryedale, North Yorkshire. It was created to give older people the opportunity to sing together and enjoy each other’s company, with the aim of combatting loneliness and isolation. “Never has this been more needed than in the past tumultuous year,” says Ruth Hannah, founder. “Since the start of lockdown, we have delivered over 180 livestreamed sessions with over 25,000 views, reaching people in all parts of the country. Ninety per cent of our participants said that sessions helped them to get through the pandemic by helping to beat feelings of loneliness and isolation.”
Community Links Volunteers, hosted by Voluntary Action Camden, have been providing ‘Chat and Link’ support, where isolated residents receive weekly calls and support to build connections as they emerge from lockdown. “Mainly they chat, introduce ideas, and encourage trying things out, but they might also ‘accompany’ the resident to an online art class or exercise group, for example,” says Donna Turnbull, Community Development Manager at Voluntary Action Camden. ‘When that person is ready to venture out, they are already connected with other local people and activities. It’s been incredibly helpful for so many people.” .
“Numerous studies have shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated loneliness, and many individuals have been adversely affected. Through social prescribing we can help individuals connect or reconnect with their local communities via support and activities that matter the most to them.”