Could social prescribing be the key to youth mental health support?

Emily Whitton
By Emily Whitton,
updated on Oct 26, 2023

Four friends with their back to the camera looking out at the view of a city.

Children's charity Barnardo’s is calling for the Government to introduce a social prescribing strategy to help tackle the UK’s youth mental health crisis 

A recent report from the children and young people’s charity, Barnardo’s, has revealed the potential impact social prescribing could have on young people's mental health, amid the current crisis in the UK. 

The charity found that for every pound spent on community activities and support, the long-term impact could be almost double – delivering benefits of around £1.80 when it comes to the positive effect on mental health. 

Following their analysis, Barnardo’s is urging the Government to put the funding and infrastructure into developing a ‘social prescribing’ strategy. This would see significant benefits to the wellbeing of young people, as well as relieve some of the pressure that we’re currently seeing on NHS clinical services, particularly among CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services). 

According to the report, around 1.4 million under 19s have a “probable mental health disorder”. Long waiting lists often exacerbate many young people’s mental health conditions. Social prescribing can “stop things escalating”, says Lynn Perry MBE, CEO of Barnardo’s. 

What is social prescribing? 

Social prescribing refers to non-clinical treatments for children experiencing mental health problems such as isolation, loneliness, low self-esteem and anxiety. The strategy aims to intervene early and prevent these conditions from becoming more serious. It works by connecting children and young people with community-based activities, like spending time outdoors in local parks, developing their creative skills or enrolling in sports. They may also be signposted to counselling and/or other health and social care services. 

The system works by matching children to an appropriate service through agencies such as GPs, teachers and local authorities who can make the initial referral. Each person is then referred to a Link worker. Their role is to offer emotional support, help them identify the right service, coordinate the support and help with logistics (i.e. transport to the activities). 

Not only would this reduce the need for clinical NHS intervention, but it’s particularly important for young people and families who feel socially excluded. Covid and the cost of living crisis have meant many people have been isolated from community assets as parents struggle to afford after-school clubs, for example. These activities play a crucial role in managing and overcoming mental health conditions, but not being able to take part in them may be contributing to these problems in the first instance. 

The role of social prescribing in supporting young people

The Open Data Institute calculated that one in five GP appointments are for non-clinical issues. They found that social prescribing could reduce the need for GP appointments by as much as 3 million. The strategy can also help in other ways, by reducing anti-social behaviour, A&E admissions, housing problems, children being taken into care and truancy from school. 

Charlotte Osborn-Forde, Chief Executive of the National Academy for Social Prescribing says, “Social prescribing can make a huge difference to young people who are struggling with their mental health, by connecting them to non-medical support.

“Developing and rolling out social prescribing for young people more widely could have a big impact, both for those individuals and the wider system”.

Many local authority budgets have been cut, leaving young people with few options to turn to. What’s more, Barnardo’s found that there is still a huge gap in service provisions – a survey of almost 500 practitioners revealed that only 8% believed children had enough access to activities that supported their wellbeing. The Department of Health and Social Care said, “Social prescribing can be an empowering and potentially life-changing intervention for those that need it, and has a key role to play in cutting waiting lists – one of the Government’s five priorities.” 

If you or your child have been affected by the long waiting lists, below are some resources that you may find helpful whilst you wait for further support

  • YoungMinds provides information and support for children and young people, parents and carers. 
  • If you want to talk and have someone listen, you can contact the Samaritans 24/7 on 116123 or email [email protected] 
  • Text SHOUT to 85258. SHOUT provides free 24/7 text support for young people across the UK. 
  • If you are under 19, you can contact Childline at any time. 

If it’s something you can afford, you may also wish to consider the option of private counselling. Many therapists offer concession prices or lower-cost sessions. Find out more about counselling and reach out to a professional on Counselling Directory, where you can filter by session type, price and location.  

Learn more about Barnardo’s, donate or get involved by visiting their website,

Emily Whitton

By Emily Whitton

Emily Whitton is a Content Creator and Marketing Coordinator at Happiful

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