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Social prescribing - it’s not just for the older generation!

Youth social prescribing has the potential to address the unique support needs of young people. A link worker may offer a young person personalised care that may not otherwise be available.


Social prescribing reduces the workload on NHS services by linking patients to community services that would improve wellbeing. Historically, these efforts have targeted adult populations struggling with anything from loneliness and social isolation to debt support and legal advice. However, very little research on the impact of social prescribing has focused on young people. 

Why is youth social prescribing necessary?

According to the NHS, social prescribing is an “all-age model”. Social prescribing can reduce health inequalities by ensuring accessibility to all young people.

A recent report by The Children’s Society reveals that approximately 250,000 children in the UK did not cope well with changes during the pandemic. An estimated 306,000 young people (aged 10-15) are not happy with their lives. This is an alarming increase from 173,000 children a decade ago.

With more young people affected by COVID-19, social prescribing will be especially vital. It will aid recovery as they come out of the pandemic.

Successful youth social prescribing cannot have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Commissioners must examine the population they are working alongside. Considering local differences and the needs of different age groups is imperative. They may then develop a model that works for a particular locality.

What are the key needs of young people?

Children and young people constitute 40% of GP workload. Yet, 60% of GPs do not have adequate training in paediatrics and child health. Rising demand and 10-minute appointment slots also mean that young people are often mistakenly referred to secondary care.

Healthcare professionals do not have the capacity to explore exact issues impacting a young person’s wellbeing. Social determinants of health cannot be sufficiently addressed by the current healthcare system. As Paul Jarvis-Beesley, Head of Health at StreetGames, notes:

“Reality is more fluid: young people fluctuate daily, weekly and annually between thriving, struggling and something in between.”

According to the 2021 Good Childhood Report, school, friendships and body image issues are causing the greatest dissatisfaction in adolescence. Children who are unhappy with their lives at 14 are also more likely than their peers to struggle with mental illness by the time they turn 17. This includes possible self-harm and/or suicidal attempts.

The findings from the report signal a worrying long-term trend demanding immediate intervention. Young people with low life satisfaction need support to combat serious mental health struggles.

This is where youth social prescribing may fill in the gap. There is an urgent need to listen and respond to the needs of young people. Social prescribing examples may include counselling services, sports or arts-related activities or volunteering. It takes working alongside a young person to set wellbeing goals “for me”. This may surface as cultivating a strong foundation, positive attitude, and reliable relationships.

What does youth social prescribing look like at present?

In 2020, NHS England & NHS Improvement (NHSE&I) commissioned the Social Prescribing Youth Network (SPYN) to institute a ‘youth social prescribing’ proposal. This constituted four pilot delivery sites in Brighton & Hove, Luton, Sheffield and Southampton.

Sheffield Futures is one, offering a range of services. Among these is Door 43, an emotional wellbeing service for 13-25-year-olds. Their social prescribing model involves several link workers across the city with a shared base at Sheffield Futures. Link workers may collaborate with their peers rather than work in isolation. They also connect young clients to both in-house and other services around the city.

With this approach, young people have an accessible environment unlike a clinical one:

  • An important avenue of support whilst waiting for professional mental health referrals
  • A wide range of services tailoring to every young person under one roof
  • An established infrastructure for young people to connect with their peers
  • Bringing link workers together in a coordinated approach facilitates sharing otherwise fragmented resources

Despite the promise of similar youth social prescribing schemes, there is room for progress. For one, maintaining communication with PCNs is essential. This enables a coordinated approach to make aware of available funding and how to make the most of it.

Developing different referral pathways may also be beneficial. This includes self-referrals and referrals via professionals, e.g. GPs and school staff. Parents and/or carers often have decision-making power when it comes to young people. Working alongside them to prioritise the needs of youth is necessary. 

Extra effort and consideration must be taken to engage minority youth. This entails disabled, BAME and LGBTQ+ individuals and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Key steps to take include:

  1. Train frontline workers in safeguarding and understanding specific needs of these groups;
  2. Create a safe space for trust-based, non-judgemental dialogue;
  3. Identify services missing in the local context that need to be in place to tackle inequalities;
  4. Assess funding requirements to assist certain individuals, e.g. with travel costs

A youth-friendly social prescribing model has to be co-produced with young people. This means involving young people in making key decisions on its delivery. All stages of development require their input from establishing how the programme works to crafting its name.

Including the voices of young people in the process of social prescribing is key. With this type of collaboration, a realistic and inclusive approach to tackling youth-centred issues can then be constructed.

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