Three ways social prescribing helps children and young people

Published on
10 October 2023

Social prescribing is increasingly used to help adults meet practical, social and emotional needs that affect their health and wellbeing. Becky Rice, Senior Policy Advisor on Mental Health and Wellbeing at Barnardo’s, shares some findings from our latest research on how social prescribing can also help children and young people.

In particular she highlights the way that social prescribing can support children and young people’s mental health, improve school attendance and make them feel part of their local communities. 

What is social prescribing? 

Social prescribing is a way of connecting people to activities, groups, and services that might help improve their health and wellbeing (NHS, 2023).  

A GP, nurse, teacher or other professional might refer someone to a social prescribing service where a Link Worker offers support and creates a social prescription. Link Workers help people to take control of their health and wellbeing, working with them to set goals and ensure that the activities prescribed are appropriate. For example, joining a walking group to increase activity levels and reduce the effect of long-term health conditions or taking part in an outdoor activity like gardening to reduce anxiety and improve mental wellbeing.

Social prescribing recognises that our health and wellbeing isn’t just about our bodies. It is shaped by our environment, how much money we have and the society we live in, and that clinical interventions, like medicine, are not always the best way to support people’s needs.

Benefits of social prescribing for children and young people’s mental health 

There is growing evidence that social prescribing can have a range of positive health and wellbeing outcomes. These include improvements in quality of life, mental and general wellbeing, and levels of depression and anxiety (The Kings Fund, 2020). However, social prescribing services, and the training for the Link Workers, tend to focus on adults and there is no dedicated funding or Government strategy for supporting children and young people through social prescribing. 

At Barnardo’s we have been working with partners to explore the benefits of social prescribing for children and young people. We deliver the largest voluntary sector social prescribing service for children and young people in England. Our Cumbria LINK service has supported over 500 children and young people aged 5-19 years old since March 2020. 

Our report, The Missing Link: social prescribing for children and young people, looks at the current academic research alongside evidence from Cumbria LINK service. The report focuses on the potential for social prescribing as an early intervention method for children and young people’s mental health, preventing them from developing more severe issues. 

The sessions with you have been incredible and have really helped me control my anxiety and help others with it too. I feel a lot better after speaking about it. Thank you for all your help.

Barnardo’s service user

The Missing Link research found that social prescribing is an effective early intervention for children and young people experiencing a range of symptoms including anxiety, social isolation, and low mood. In a sample of children and young people, 66% made an improvement after being involved in social prescribing.

I found the support really good and having you there to talk to honestly meant the world. I feel so much better than I did from when you first came, and I feel so much better with my mental health and myself in general - thank you so much for being there for me and helping me.

Barnardo’s service user

Other ways social prescribing benefits children and young people

Although The Missing Link research focuses on mental health, it also identified some other ways that social prescribing can benefit children and young people. One of these is the way social prescribing can improve rates of school attendance, the other is by making children and young people feel better connected to their communities.

Social prescribing can support schools to increase attendance 

Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a relationship between attending school and academic achievement, with pupils who miss more school performing less well than other young people who attend more regularly (Department for Education, 2022). Recent guidance also says that where children have a mental health issue, attendance at school may help as being away from school might make it worse (Department for Education, 2023). Therefore, helping children attend school can make a difference to both their academic achievement and their mental health.

In our research, school staff described social prescribing as a vital part of their response to growing mental health needs among their students. 

Social prescribing services can work with and alongside other school services including Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs). Link Workers can offer appointments to students during the school day and within familiar buildings. They build trust with children and young people and coordinate communication between families, school, and other services, looking at the person and everything around them to identify the causes and what might be contributing to mental health problems to drive improved attendance. 

As a school, our tools to support and improve attendance are limited. It’s so helpful to have that independent person who isn’t a teacher or parent and who can provide that holistic assessment and coordinate support.

School who refers people to a social prescribing service

It can help young people feel part of a local community

In our research children and young people described feeling disconnected from local spaces because of feeling unwelcome as well as a lack of transport, understanding the available groups to join and, confidence. Social prescribing can help tackle these issues. 

I think I feel less isolated. Before I started coming here, I didn’t have a lot of friends or talk to people. It was isolating to be at home all of the time without anyone to talk to. But now I am excited for the next activity, and I feel less stuck and alone.

Barnardo’s service user

Link Workers who act as social prescribers are part of the places they work, allowing them to develop an understanding of the services available locally. This means they can break down barriers that stop people accessing support such as transport barriers due to cost or poor availability of public transport, lack of confidence accessing services or language barriers. Social prescribing can also help children and young people feel more connected to local physical spaces. This can benefit the community because if they feel more connected to local areas, they are more likely to look after the spaces, valuing them and treating them with respect (Richardson et al, 2015).  

I feel like allotments are seen as an older person’s hobby. They think if they see a young person turn up that we are there to mess it up.

Young person interviewed by Barnardo’s

I’m going to get stopped and searched in the park

Young person interviewed by Barnardo’s

Slices of log with words painted on like 'guilt', 'lonely', 'anger' on the floor of a wood. People sit around them cross legged.
Young people engaging in a series of therapeutic sessions in nature delivered by Barnardo's

We also found that children and young people found nature spaces particularly valuable as a way of managing their mental health and disconnecting from pressures (Barnardo’s Innovation Lab, unpublished). These could be green spaces like parks, forests and playing fields or blue spaces, such as rivers, lakes, and coastal waters (Environment Agency, 2021). Examples of green and blue social prescribing activities include growing vegetables, urban farming, walking in nature spaces, outdoor swimming, or water sports (Mitchell at al, 2021). Making activities in green and blue spaces part of social prescribing has dual benefits for individuals’ health and wellbeing, and for local communities. 

Going for a walk or messing around in the woods is so beneficial. One of the benefits of nature-based practice, is if they aren’t looking at you, they will tell you more. It helps you understand the need and respond.

Barnardo’s Link Worker

What we think needs to happen now 

Based on our research we’re making a series of recommendations on social prescribing to Governments across the UK. We want to see a strategic approach so more children and young people have access to the support when they need it, and for social prescribers to have more options to prescribe, including activities in green and blue spaces. You can read more about our recommendations in The Missing Link: social prescribing for children and young people

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