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Church and community mental-health support: now available on prescription

20 October 2023

Jack Palmer-White looks at the way churches can help with social prescribing

A link worker chats to a visitor to the Meeting Place at St Mary’s, Southampton

A link worker chats to a visitor to the Meeting Place at St Mary’s, Southampton

OUR country is facing a mental-health crisis. The crisis predates the pandemic, but there is no doubt that Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis have exacerbated its impacts dramatically.

Since the creation of the NHS in 1948, and the development of health and social-care provision alongside an increasing population, growing numbers of people are living with long-term health conditions, or struggling with mental-health issues.

To help meet these needs, social prescribing has been gaining traction in the NHS. GP practices and other primary-care professionals refer people to non-clinical services run by voluntary and community groups, including churches, that can help support their health and well-being.

Created as a church-led response to the pandemic, and supported by leaders from 15 denominations and umbrella bodies, the ChurchWorks Commission is working to support the part that many churches are playing in the well-being of our communities, including connecting churches with the possibility of social prescribing.

For example, a few months after the social-prescribing team was established at Southampton Central Primary Care Network (PCN), the social-prescribing link workers got in touch with St Mary’s Southampton and Southampton City Mission to find out what plans they had to support people with food over the Christmas period. As many churches do during this time of the year, St Mary’s was providing food parcels.

Responding to growing food insecurity and the continuing impact of Covid, which was affecting people’s ability to afford or access food, St Mary’s and Southampton City Mission established the Marketplace, a social supermarket for the neighbourhood. For £5 a week, locals could shop in the church building for a variety of fresh food. The church invited the social-prescribing link workers to refer patients directly to the Marketplace.

Since then, the relationship between the project and link workers has flourished, expanding well beyond its original conception. St Mary’s Marketplace is now one part of Meeting Place, a community space open weekly, offering a pay-what-you-can café, conversation, and friendship. Link workers benefit from the more informal environment to meet patients and connect them to non-medical support to address their broader well-being needs.

Such provision would have taken months — perhaps years — to establish: a local “anchor” institution known and trusted by the community; a group of volunteers committed to serving their neighbours; a space not associated with medical/clinical issues, and thus with a more relaxed and informal atmosphere; and a two-way referral pathway between St Mary’s and the link workers.

ANOTHER church in Winchester diocese involved in social prescribing is St Mary’s, Andover, which runs a range of social projects taking referrals from five GP surgeries to the Primary Care Network in the town.

Projects run by St Mary’s, under the banner of the Lighthouse Andover, include debt-management through Christians Against Poverty, a community cooking and food programme, a thrift shop, and a double-decker bus that visits housing estates for “Make and Munch” lunch and crafts sessions, in partnership with the local public-health team. St Mary’s also provides chaplaincy services to the staff at the Primary Care Network.

The Rector of St Mary’s, the Revd Paul Bradish, said: “There are many people who visit their GP with non-clinical needs. . .The partnership with the Primary Care Network has meant that their needs can be assessed, and they can be offered help and time through social prescribing.

“As a church, we have found our voice as confident witnesses to the gospel by the grace of God. It has deepened the faith of our congregations, and we have rediscovered the relationship between evangelism and social-action ministry.”

How to get involved

THE seven link workers employed by Southampton Central PCN are just some of the 1000 who have been recruited in the NHS in England. Seeking to support 900,000 people over the next two years, they are busy establishing relationships with a variety of projects in their communities that could benefit the patients who are referred to them.

Since the pressures on NHS services are unlikely to ease any time soon, there is a growing need for churches and other voluntary organisations to bring their gifts to the table, and build partnerships with social-prescribing link workers.

For the church, this does not mean feeling a sense of pressure to set up another new project or activity, but about making new connections between existing expressions of mission and ministry, and with people who might benefit from becoming involved.

Churches that have made the connection with link workers have been able to offer referrals into activities as diverse as choirs, listening and befriending services, gardening projects, debt-advice courses, social supermarkets, community cooking projects, parent and toddler groups, and even the Alpha course.

The Meeting Place

The connection between social prescribing and the church is strongest where the work is collaborative. The needs of a local community cannot be packaged into one project, or be the responsibility of one church or organisation.

To flourish, church engagement with social prescribing and other community-centred approaches must be built on both partnership and consultation. Some of the church-run projects having the greatest impact began with a process of community consultation, to ensure that response genuinely matched need.

To connect with link workers for the first time, simple call the local GP surgery. Talk with the link workers about what projects and activities your church runs (or could run), and ask them where the need is greatest, or if there are projects happening elsewhere that could benefit from your support.

From there, you will be able to build a picture of how your congregation and its skills and enthusiasms can play a part in supporting social prescribing locally.

If your church is one of the 7000 Warm Welcome Spaces operating over the winter months (News, 5 May), for example, invite link workers to visit and meet those coming to use the space. The strength of the social-prescribing model is that it offers two-way referrals: link workers can refer people to services run by and through churches, and churches can help connect people with link workers.

Challenges in social prescribing

DESPITE being a relatively new concept in NHS circles (it was formally integrated into the NHS strategy only in 2019), social prescribing is now seen as a key component of Universal Personalised Care, the model helping to give people more choice and control over their health.

But, because it is still a relatively novel approach, there are still plenty of ways in which social prescribers and the wider system can improve, using the experience and expertise of the voluntary sector, particularly faith communities.

While there is considerable momentum around increasing the presence of church-run activities among social prescribers, more work also needs to be done to understand the significance of faith in social prescribing, and as a key tenet of well-being in the NHS’s current model. Faith is not currently named explicitly in the NHS’s core activities for well-being, which are currently: exercise, information, nature, culture, arts, and heritage.

The volunteering crisis that is affecting the voluntary sector and faith communities is also a concern. These groups cannot simply be asked to take on more and more responsibility without genuine investment in the recruitment and retention of volunteers. Conversations with the Government and the NHS at all levels need to include honest dialogue about how to ensure partnerships are fair and sustainable.

Sustainability is already a key concern in the social-prescribing model. Anecdotal evidence suggests that link workers are already being overwhelmed with casework, and supporting the most complex needs, reducing their capacity to play the linking role that was originally intended. Finding ways to release link workers to do this is vital, if the model is to work at the pace and scale necessary.

The newness of social prescribing in the NHS also means that it has not yet been fully integrated into the system, and can sometimes be disconnected from wider community-centred efforts, or broader strategic goals across a region. Championing and integrating social prescribing within NHS structures is also key to its long-term success.

These challenges and opportunities are part of the reason that the ChurchWorks Commission is committed to supporting social prescribing’s long-term success. It uses research, webinars, training opportunities, national conferences, dialogue with senior government and NHS leaders, or simply telling the good news of how the Church is helping people to flourish. We want to encourage as many churches as possible to help make the social-prescribing model a success.

Jack Palmer-White is a senior director at the Good Faith Partnership and project director for the ChurchWorks Commission.


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