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Social prescribing and the strengths-based approach to care

A strengths-based approach moves away from what people cannot do. Instead, it embraces an individual's ambitions and targets wellbeing improvement by building on personal and community assets.


strengths-based approach to care is about collaboration. Those receiving and those providing support work together to determine an outcome that draws on personal strengths. The aim of this practice is to promote the ability to make choices about one's wellbeing. It protects an individual's independence and values resilience.

The ethos behind social prescribing reflects this very notion. As a service that encourages choice and control over one's health, social prescribing aligns with a strengths-based practice. The key to its success lies in the quality of the relationship formed between a link worker and their client. Link workers empower clients to take a greater role in their own wellbeing. By addressing non-clinical factors that impact health, they co-develop a personalised plan to tackle these directly.

What is a strengths-based approach to care?

The strengths-based approach is a social work practice theory that stresses self-determination. The strengths perspective began in the early 1980s at the University of Kansas’ School of Social Welfare. In 1989, Weick, Rapp, Sullivan, and Kishardt coined the term “strengths perspective” to challenge the focus on diagnosis, labels, and problems in mental health. Rather, it values clients as resourceful and resilient in the face of adversity.

Focusing on one's strengths can address needs in a way that allows them to lead and be in control of their wellbeing. It is also preventative in nature and may delay the occurrence of further needs. 

Alex Fox, Chief Executive of Shared Lives, a care and support service for people aged 16+, says:

"People need to be seen as more than just their care needs – they need to be experts and in charge of their own lives.

A strengths-based practice demands collaboration between a practitioner and their client. This process enables one to be an active co-producer rather than a passive consumer of support services.

An individual’s strengths include personal, community and social assets. A practitioner helps maximise those strengths, allowing them to achieve their desired goals. In this way, a strengths-based approach improves and sustains wellbeing.

Still, Ewan King, deputy chief executive of the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), notes that strengths-based practice should not only be for social work. According to him, strengths-based approaches can succeed as a whole system. This would involve working alongside the health, voluntary and housing sectors. Social prescribing can play an integral role here.

The link between social prescribing and strengths-based practice

An effective strengths-based practice means connecting people to community assets. This mirrors the key elements of social prescribing:

  1. personal abilities, skills, knowledge, potential
  2. social network and its resources
  3. community support services

Implementing a strengths-based approach requires a commitment beyond frontline practice. Practitioners will need to research and familiarise themselves with community resources. A social prescribing link worker fits within this role.

Link workers bring in the time and expertise healthcare professionals lack. They build a solid relationship with clients to address social determinants of health. In doing so, they shift away from a paternalistic model of 'fixing’ problems. Rather, by working alongside individuals, they identify 'what matters to them'.

A strengths-based practice naturally embeds itself within social prescribing. In a way, it bridges the gap between healthcare and social work.

Why is a strengths-based practice important in social prescribing?

A strengths-based approach assesses an individual's ambitions and areas of development. These entail 'soft' and 'hard' strengths both at an individual and community level.

‘Soft’ strengths

  • Personal qualities
  • Knowledge and skills
  • Relationships
  • Passions and interests
  • Connections with neighbours
  • Community groups
  • Shared interest groups
  • Community leaders

‘Hard’ strengths

  • Health
  • Finance
  • Housing
  • Transport
  • Health and social care services
  • Leisure
  • Schools
  • Community buildings

Given its scope, the opportunities for support widens with a strengths-based practice. It moves away from what people cannot do. Instead, it looks to build on personal and community assets. These are already present but not always visible.

If there can be any positive takeaway from the pandemic, it would be the tenacity of local communities. These are fundamental to effective and sustainable support for those in need.

A link worker further streamlines this process. Considering a client's circumstances, they identify possible avenues of support. In other words, they link up individual and community strengths in a practical way.

This falls within the NHS Model for Personalised Care: a strengths-based system making the most of the expertise and potential of people, families and communities. The six evidence-based components of this model include:

  • Collaborative decision-making
  • Personalised care plan
  • Enabling personal choice
  • Social prescribing and community-based support
  • Self-management of health
  • Personal health budgets

If all sectors in a local area worked to identify and build on people’s strengths, wellbeing outcomes would improve massively. Social prescribing can be the core of an ecosystem of strengths-based ways of working.

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