UK children to be 'prescribed' gardening and fishing in new project to combat loneliness

Children to be 'prescribed' gardening and fishing to help tackle loneliness
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Children will be "prescribed" activities such as gardening, fishing, and museum visits in a new study aimed at combating loneliness among youngsters. The initiative, targeting nine to 13 year olds, will evaluate the effectiveness of social prescribing in reducing feelings of isolation, mental health issues, boosting school attendance, and its cost-effectiveness.

Social prescribing, as defined by the NHS, is a method that links individuals to community-based activities, groups, and services to address their practical, emotional, and social needs. However, the team behind the four-year research project, spearheaded by University College London (UCL), has indicated that while adults are increasingly benefiting from social prescribing, young people might not be reaping similar benefits.

Co-principal investigator Professor Daisy Fancourt, from UCL's department of behavioural science and health, commented: "While GPs are increasingly adopting social prescribing for adults, young people are not yet routinely accessing the service, as they tend not to go to the GP for health and wellbeing support in the way that adults might."

She added: "Our programme will help provide evidence on the potential benefits that social prescribing may have for children too."

The pilot phase of the project, which begins this year, is currently enlisting twelve primary and secondary schools with the goal of involving approximately 100 pupils.

The plan is to extend the project to 30 schools across the UK in the upcoming year, engaging potentially up to 600 students.

Lonesome or excluded children will be assigned to a connection worker or social prescriber as part of this research. They will receive aid to participate in activities tailored to their hobbies, including a variety from sports to arts, and gardening to fishing.

Wellbeing impacts, feelings of isolation, mental health issues, school attendance and achievements will all be evaluated and compared to a control group who are merely directed towards an activity without any extra support from the social prescriber.

Research revealed an Office for National Statistics survey from 2018 which showed that 11.3% of kids, 10 to 15 years old, in the UK regularly reported feeling isolated. This increased to 19.5% for city-dwelling children and 27.5% for those on free school meals.

A Government study from last year hinted at an increase in anxiety amongst pupils during the 2021/22 academic year, despite a return to full-time, face-to-face education post-pandemic.

Probable mental disorders rates remained "at elevated levels" among England's youth compared to pre-pandemic times, according to the Department for Education's annual State of the Nation report, suggesting that the recovery of children's and teenagers' wellbeing toward pre-COVID-19 levels remain "inconsistent".

Dr Daniel Hayes, co-principal investigator from UCL, has highlighted the growing issue of loneliness among UK adolescents, particularly in urban areas and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. He stated: "Loneliness has become an increasing problem among adolescents in the UK. This problem is especially acute in cities and among children from disadvantaged backgrounds."

He also discussed the potential benefits of social prescribing for young people: "There is promising early evidence that social prescribing can help young people. Our study will add to this evidence base, assessing how effective social prescribing is in reducing loneliness and mental health difficulties, enhancing wellbeing and improving academic attendance and attainment, as well as how cost effective it is."

Detailing the approach of their project, Dr Hayes explained: "In our project, a link worker will meet the young person for six to eight sessions, learning what matters most to them, what their gifts and strengths are, in order to provide tailored support, linking them with local organisations and activities that will be of interest to them."

Professor Daisy Fancourt, also involved in the research, emphasised the importance of social connections for young people: "Friendships and social connections are cornerstones of healthy adolescent development."

She warned of the risks associated with loneliness in youth: "If young people are lonely, they are at increased risk of developing depression, physical problems such as poor sleep, and later ill health, including cardiovascular disease."

The Increasing Adolescent social and Community support (Inact) research programme, which is investigating these issues, receives funding from the Kavli Trust and includes collaboration from the University of Manchester, the National Academy for Social Prescribing, and the Social Prescribing Youth Network.