MENTAL HEALTH & WELLNESS

Doctors pen ‘social prescriptions’ to ease depression, loneliness in patients

The concept — prescribing a social activity — has proven to be an effective tool in the U.K

Doctors pen ‘social prescriptions’ to ease depression, loneliness in patients

When Tammy McEvoy was asked to share her time and crafting talents to engage with other patients at her local health centre, she ended up getting back as much as she gave — maybe more.

McEvoy is one of 15 “health champions” at the Belleville and Quinte West Community Health Centre taking part in an innovative Ontario pilot project in which doctors or other practitioners write out a “social prescription” for patients experiencing depression, anxiety or loneliness that affects their sense of well-being.

The concept — prescribing a social activity like taking a yoga class, visiting an art gallery or joining a knitting circle — has proven to be an effective tool in the U.K., where research has shown that not only do patients benefit from a mental-health boost, but many also end up with reduced medications and find less need to visit their doctors.

Since the pilot project began in October, McEvoy has taught classes on wreath-making, and cooked an evening meal for an addiction group meeting at the centre’s Quinte West site in Trenton.

The wreath-making classes brought together 16 participants. “The first one I did, I watched magic happen because they all started helping each other,” says the 52-year-old self-described empty-nester who’s often alone while her husband works long hours.

“I’ve spent the last six years not working and not being out because of health reasons,” says McEvoy, who has a heart condition. “But now I can go there, I’m comfortable there.

“It helps me just as much as it helps them.”

Meghan Shanahan Thain, a social worker at the Trenton health centre, says the program is based on a U.K. collaborative practice model called Altogether Better.

“So people come up with their own ideas based on their own talents and skills, but they also have a lens that we don’t see in terms of what the community needs and what our clients need,” she says of the health champions, who included a singing circle in the social activities on offer.

On one occasion, “we had two people who are widowed who connected to each other and just sang,” she says. “A girl from the community showed up with a guitar.

“Music really brings people together, but it also taps into the socially isolated folks as well … Just having a social connection has a lot of health benefits. Being socially isolated can make us sick in a lot of different ways.”

The 18-month pilot project, supported by a $600,000 Ontario Health Ministry grant, is being spearheaded by the Alliance for Healthier Communities, which represents more than 100 primary health-care organizations across the province.

The grant allowed the Alliance to trial social prescribing in 10 of the centres, with a goal of evaluating benefits to patients, says Kate Mulligan, director of policy and communications.

“One example from Thunder Bay that really resonates is there’s a long-haul trucker who was experiencing social isolation and he started up a knitting group at the community health centre,” she says, adding that it’s especially satisfying to see a person in need become a volunteer to help others form social connections.

“They start to recognize their own value and self-worth when they’re participating and contributing to the community,” Mulligan says. “So you’re not just seen as a patient with deficits and problems, but you’re a person who has something to offer.”

Another of the pilot sites is the Rexdale Community Health Centre in Toronto. A large proportion of patients are recent immigrants or refugees, who are at risk of social isolation that can lead to depression and anxiety, says Dr. Sonali Srivastava, a primary-care physician on staff.

“Really, the research is showing us that social integration is a major part of people’s level of happiness and health,” she says. ”If there’s a social component in there that is missing, we need to address it.”

That could mean writing a prescription for a patient to join a tai chi class, for example, or to tour a museum or art gallery.

Indeed, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) are two cultural institutions in Canada that have embraced the idea of coupling social activities with health and well-being.

A recent study conducted by the MMFA, McGill University and the Jewish General Hospital found that seniors who participated in drawing and painting workshops reported an improved sense of well-being, health and quality of life.

Starting in January, the ROM will begin providing 5,000 sets of free passes to patients with social prescriptions for a tour of its exhibits for themselves and three companions, working with 20 of its ROMCAN (Community Access Network) partners in the Greater Toronto Area, including the Alliance for Healthier Communities. The program will then be rolled out to the other 80 partners in the network.

Jennifer Czajkowski, deputy director for engagement at the Toronto museum, says research has shown that museums can be restorative environments for visitors.

“They’re with other people, also people are able to see objects that might be from their own heritage, things that help them connect to their own culture or to the cultures of others, other times and places,” she says.

“These things can all help to alleviate a sense of loneliness.”

Srivastava says social prescribing reflects a change in how the medical community views health and wellness and the role that doctors and allied practitioners can play.

“If I just tell somebody verbally ‘I want you to go for a walk for 30 minutes, three times a week,’ they’re less likely to do it than if I were to write it down on a prescription pad,” she says.

“Usually we write down medications, right? But when it’s put on a pad of paper and a doctor writes it down and signs it, all of a sudden it means it’s serious.

“And I believe the reason why it’s important is because we forget that health is not only about physical well-being and mental well-being, it’s also about social well-being.”

Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Nikita, a four-year-old German Shepherd that was attacked by a buck in a backyard in Esquimalt Sunday is lucky the injury wasn't more severe. (Photo contributed by Suzette Goldsworthy)
Esquimalt dog owner issues alert after deer injures German shepherd

Nikita needed stitches after an early morning encounter

The Victoria Police Department headquarters. (Black Press Media file photo)
Investigation launched into man’s death after arrest in Victoria

IIO investigation to determine if police actions or inaction played a role in the man’s death

(Black Press Media file photo)
Police arrest man covered in blood on heels of significant Saanich crash into woods

Resident calls in home invasion in progress after crash

Capital Regional District Animal Control say an eight-month-old Rottweiler bit a Langford mother and her child near Glen Lake on Nov. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Large dog attacks mother and child in Langford

Mother puts three-year-old on top of car to protect him

Victoria School for Ideal Education at 2820 Belmont Avenue is the second school in Greater Victoria with an active confirmed COVID-19 exposure. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
Private school becomes second Greater Victoria school with COVID-19 exposure

Victoria School for Ideal Education follows Lakeview Christian School in Saanich

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Forty-one positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested for refusing to wear mask at Kelowna Value Village

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, November 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-19: What do rising positivity rates mean for B.C.? It’s not entirely clear

Coronavirus cases are on the rise but the province has not unveiled clear thresholds for further measures

A rider carves a path on Yanks Peak Saturday, Nov. 21. Two men from Prince George went missing on the mountain the next day. One of them, Colin Jalbert, made it back after digging out his sled from four feet under the snow. The other, Mike Harbak, is still missing. Local search and rescue teams went out looking Monday, Nov. 23. (Sam Fait Photo)
‘I could still be the one out there’: Snowmobiler rescued, 1 missing on northern B.C. mountain

As Quesnel search and rescue teams search for the remaining rider, Colin Jalbert is resting at home

Most Read