Life changing – how social prescribing turned things round for three Wandsworth residents

For full-time carer, Xavier, the pandemic has been a lonely and difficult time. Caring for his 78-year-old mother, while managing his own health conditions was taking its toll – plus living in temporary accommodation meant his housing situation was becoming stressful.

“I was surrounded by problems at that time,” he said. “I was really worried about my health, my mum’s health and I had concerns about our accommodation. I lost my home and social contacts, and I had a 78-year-old woman to look after. I was really worried.”

Xavier was referred by his GP, to social prescribing link worker, Begona Carbia from Brocklebank Primary Care Network (PCN).

“We spoke a lot about all these problems,” says Xavier. “She gave me advice about what I can do and how I can manage these issues. She contacted the housing department for me, and it was a great help.”

Begona also put him in touch with local agencies that could offer legal help, including Citizen’s Advice and Shelter. She even helped him get a wheelchair for his mum, a seemingly small thing, which had become a big deal. Most of all though Begona was there for Xavier, helping him change his way of thinking to solve problems that had seemed insurmountable.

Social prescribing supports people to take control of their health within the community. The initiative was introduced by NHS England as part of its long-term plan to improve personalised care and last year 2,701 people were supported by the service in Wandsworth.

Taking a holistic approach to health and wellbeing, social prescribing link workers offer support with things like managing stress, physical activity, loneliness and finding social groups. They also signpost people to ways of learning new skills and accessing information on employment, benefits, housing and legal advice.

In Wandsworth the service is provided by Enable Leisure and Culture, whose work has just been recognised by a national accolade – Social Prescribing Programme of the Year at the Link Worker Day 2021 Awards.

Commissioned by the NHS in Wandsworth, the service operates in GP practices across the borough alongside specialist link workers, experienced in adult social care, mental health, cancer services and young people.

Sarah was referred to link worker Catherine Mutula from Balham, Tooting, Furzedown PCN. Catherine helped Sarah explore her ambition of returning to work or volunteering after a decade, which gave her hope for the future.

Sarah explained: “I’ve got multiple health issues and I’m indoors a lot, at home most of the day and sometimes all of the day. But that’s really not what I’m about. I love to be out, about and doing something.”

After her sessions with Catherine, Sarah signed up with her local leisure centre, for aerobic exercise classes in the swimming pool, which helps with the pain from her arthritis.

“I also wanted to meet others,” says Sarah. “She put me in touch with a coffee morning and walking group. I just got this sense that ‘wow, this person really cares about me as an individual and cares about helping me to make some sense of my otherwise pointless life’.

“I wouldn’t even want to get up because there was nothing to get up for. Social prescribing actually made me take action. For one of the first times really.”

Enable’s programme has a strong emphasis on reducing social disparities and reaching out to under-represented groups. Its results show a long-term impact on physical and mental wellbeing with 67% of participants sustaining changes they made for more than 12 months. Some 84% saw improvements to their wellbeing and 60% have improved their quality of life.

Mohan Sekeram, the Clinical Lead for Social Prescribing in Merton and Wandsworth said: “The emphasis on reducing health inequalities, together with the strength of community partnerships working alongside local GPs, has been key to our programme’s success in improving hundreds of local residents’ wellbeing despite the challenges of the pandemic.”

These partners include Macmillan Cancer Care, whose link workers provide in-depth support to reduce the social impact of cancer and the scheme Active Wellbeing, which works with people with severe mental illness. Enable’s Social Prescribing Capacity Fund has also supported seven voluntary sector organisations and distributed £27,500, allowing hundreds of people to access vital support.

Neville has struggled with health problems including depression for most of his life and had recently lost his father. His GP referred him to a link worker, who put him in touch with organisations including Wandsworth Carer’s and Wandsworth Alzheimer’s Society.

He said: “Everything has been very difficult to deal with and when you’re on your own it’s even more difficult. I think in the last few weeks, if [my link worker] hadn’t been there I’d be lost because her support has really helped me.

“Loneliness is a killer, and when you speak to somebody you feel better, because you’ve let a lot of your problems out. I think the social prescribing scheme you’re doing is very helpful.”

*Xavier, Sarah and Neville are not their real names – their stories have been anonymised with their consent