Dr. Kate Mulligan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and the Senior Director of the Canadian Institute for Social Prescribing. Her work focuses on advancing community-scale leadership and intervention in health and health systems.
Loneliness as a Health Issue
Loneliness has caught the attention of health care providers as a serious cause of physical and mental ill health. But the solution is not medical. It’s social.
Instead of getting a prescription for medication, participants in social prescribing get a referral that helps address the root of the problem – from fuel subsidies to food growing groups.
They are supported by a wellbeing coordinator or link worker who helps shift the focus from “what’s the matter with me” and towards “what matters to me.” With this support, each person can decide on the social prescription that works best for them.
In our research, we tried out social prescribing in eleven communities, each one with different characteristics. Healthcare providers reported fewer repeat visits and better connections with local community services, and participants reduced their sense of loneliness by forty-nine percent.
They reported feeling heard and included, a renewed sense of purpose and confidence in their own abilities, and more control over their health. Many were even able to give back to others as volunteers. These are the main elements of what psychologists and political scientists call individual and collective self-determination – a vital part of health promotion.
Research into how social prescribing works is starting to show that it can improve everyone’s health by addressing the social conditions, like loneliness and inequity, that are most responsible for our health and wellbeing outcomes. It can reduce healthcare costs and improve care experiences by moving people from medical care to more appropriate, affordable and upstream community services. It can even reduce burnout in health care providers by helping them take action on what really matters – both to them and to the communities they serve.