In difficult times, we all need to talk, to connect, to feel reassured that we are not alone.
Many of us will have strong support networks and positive family relationships. But others will lack these connections for a myriad of reasons. We know that the impact of this can be devastating, and that people who are socially isolated are more likely to experience worse health than those who benefit from strong social connections.
Social prescribing offers a chance to remedy this for many people. Whilst the country suddenly comes to terms with a new way of life, as a result of the measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, fixing these connections is perhaps more important than ever.
Self-isolation and social distancing will hopefully save thousands of lives by reducing transfer of the coronavirus, but we need to work harder than ever to ensure that the malign ‘social virus’ of loneliness doesn’t accelerate during this period.
Vital, virtual support
In that regard, it has been truly inspiring to see the response across the country from people and communities, and those involved in the delivery of social prescribing. Social prescribing has, of course, needed a radical rethink in how it operates, as physical group meetings and activities have been suspended, but the opportunities to connect people with vital, virtual support from voluntary sector groups, organisations, and innovative initiatives are plentiful.
Social prescribing link workers across the country are responding to the crisis by supporting vulnerable people to get the help they need. Link workers within primary care networks are in a unique position to help coordinate support for people who are vulnerable and self-isolating, using their well-established relationships with local authorities and voluntary sector partners. We are seeing inspiring examples of how link workers are creating the bridge between primary care and community and neighbourhood support. Their support ranges from helping coordinate practical support, providing essential emotional support and advice via video calls to helping community groups develop virtual ways of connecting.
We recognise that these are challenging times for link workers who are new in post. There is extensive free support from our partners at NHS England, which includes regional social prescribing teams who can provide peer support, and regular webinars offering guidance. The last webinar attracted over 650 attendees.
Thank you to all link workers out there, you are doing an amazing job, please look after yourselves.
Alongside this, we are also seeing amazing examples of community spirit, with more than 700k people already signing up as volunteers to support the NHS through their partnership with the @GoodSamApp. This will enable people to be supported by volunteers across the country who can help with things such as transport to and from essential medical appointments. Social prescribing link workers within Primary Care Networks will also be able to refer to NHS Volunteers.
There are also some brilliant resources out there to support people in their own homes to still experience activities that enable good mental and physical health. Our friends at Sport England, for example, have launched their #StayInWorkOut campaign and @64m_artists are creating daily art challenges for people to unleash their creative side. It is also amazing to see people such as Joe Wicks devote time to keeping kids active with his daily PE sessions, and Gareth Malone getting the nation singing through his Home Malone initiative. We are also inspired by the work that the British Red Cross and the Campaign to End Loneliness are doing to tackle loneliness and bring people together.
In addition, there are some excellent opportunities for connection being generated by communities themselves, with neighbours establishing WhatsApp groups to support each other and share resources.
Power of community
Whilst we have many challenges ahead as a society before we see the retreat of COVID-19, the situation has demonstrated the power of community, and the amazing opportunities that come from effective partnerships between the voluntary and statutory sectors.
When we launched our first ever strategy, ‘A Social Revolution in Wellbeing’, on the 12 March we called for an ambitious movement, connecting communities and mobilising hundreds of thousands of people and organisations with a shared commitment to transforming lives. Whilst we currently face very difficult times as a nation, hopefully the increased sense of connection we are seeing can continue to grow and evolve, forming a stronger foundation for social prescribing beyond the pandemic.
Please keep sharing your innovative ideas with us of how to connect with people during this strange time and the excellent examples out there of social prescribing reaching out to communities by emailing [email protected] with ‘Ideas Bank’ in the subject line.
Even in these difficult times, there are still plenty of opportunities to discover the joy in life.
James Sanderson is the CEO of the National Academy of Social Prescribing.