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Social prescribing boosts health and wellbeing in north east London

Companionship and a listening ear can do your health and wellbeing a world of good.

So says Brian Gribben, 79, whose life has been changed for the better since he started attending a local bereavement support group in Redbridge following a visit to his GP.

Brian, 79, was heartbroken when Sheila, his beloved wife of almost 59 years, died of cancer in 2021. He tried antidepressants but could not stand the physical side-effects.

Ultimately, it was meeting up with other people in the Healing Hearts group in Chigwell – all of whom are coping with the loss of a loved one – that has helped him most.

Brian was put in contact with Healing Hearts by social prescriber Simarone Sahota, from Wanstead and Woodford Primary Care Network. Her role – and that of other social prescribers – is to listen to people whose health is suffering due to problems that cannot be solved by doctors, and to connect them with groups and activities that can help.

Brian, who grew up in Bethnal Green and used to work as a meat porter at Smithfield Market, was initially a bit sceptical about joining the support group, but this quickly changed.

“I didn’t want to go,” he said. “I didn’t believe it would do any good, but it has cheered me up like mad. I don’t know why but I come out of there like I am dancing on my toes.”

“They are such nice people – I never miss a meeting.”

It is estimated that one in five visits to the GP are related to social needs such as stress, loneliness or relationship turmoil, rather than medical issues, so many patients attending their local surgery in north east London may now be referred to a social prescriber.

Social prescribers, also known as link workers, will take time to understand what matters to each patient and help them create a plan with information and ideas for next steps.

They can then connect patients with non-clinical services and organisations that can offer support, guidance, and opportunities for personal growth, and this may include helping them to start a new initiative such joining a local befriending group or gardening club.

Today (9 March), the impact of link workers, community groups and the organisations that support their work is being recognised as part of Social Prescribing Day, an annual celebration of the effect social prescribing can have on people’s health and wellbeing.

Angie Turner, a social prescriber based in Redbridge, said: “Over the last two years I can see the positive impacts of additional roles like social prescribers in GP teams.

“People come to me as I have the time to listen and support them with a personalised approach, promoting independence and supporting them with life journey hurdles and obstacles. I give people tools and tips to become more positive and take control of their own lives, encouraging self-worth and independence.”

Alex Trigg, a social prescriber based in Tower Hamlets, said: “I like to think of social prescribers as bridges that enable people to obtain the knowledge they need to improve the quality of their life.

“One thing I’ve learnt from this job is the fundamental importance of community groups, activities and services for the overall health of the people in our areas.

“Social prescribers would be nowhere without the voluntary, charity, health and wellbeing sector. We can help make improvements in people’s lives because there are places that can provide that extra level of support and compassion. I think these services should be celebrated every day.”

Social prescribing is part of the NHS Long Term plan to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to healthcare and towards personalised care. This approach recognises that each person has unique needs and preferences when it comes to their health and wellbeing.

If you live in Barking and Dagenham, City of London, Hackney, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets or Waltham Forest and your physical or mental health is being affected by non-medical issues – such as a lack of green space, bereavement or housing – social prescribing might be able to help. To find out more, speak to your GP practice.

For more information, visit the North East London Health and Care Partnership website.