Young people will practice surfing, roller skating and gardening to see if sports, arts and outdoor activities can make them less anxious and depressed.
NHS Mental Health Trusts will use the activities to help 600 young people on their waiting lists for care as part of a study to find out if ‘social prescribing’ helps improve mental wellbeing.
People aged 11 to 18 in 10 regions of England will also be able to take part in dance, music, sport and exercise and attend youth clubs during the trial, which is led by academics from University College London.
If participation proves successful, the NHS could seek to make these activities available across England to help the thousands of young people who face delays of up to months in accessing formal treatment, during which time their condition often worsens.
“The mental health of young people is one of the biggest challenges facing the NHS,” said Dr Daisy Fancourt, the UCL mental health expert who is leading the trial. “Currently, many young people referred to child and adolescent mental health services face long waits, during which more than three-quarters experience deterioration in their mental health.
“Social prescribing has the potential to support young people while they wait, giving them access to a range of creative and social activities that could improve their confidence, self-esteem and social support networks.”
Fancourt and her team will assess youth participation, the feasibility of making these activities available, and the costs involved. Participants will be able to choose which activities they want to try, helped by a liaison officer or a “buddy”, in collaboration with 10 NHS mental health trusts.
This approach has already been tested in a small-scale trial conducted in Luton, Sheffield and Brighton & Hove in 2018-2020, but the UCL-led study will be the largest to date.
The government-funded assessment of this pilot project found that participation improved the personal and mental well-being of young people, especially among those who felt the worst at the start, and reduced loneliness.
Participants said, “The Liaison Workers have helped improve their sense of empowerment, reduce their sense of stigma surrounding mental health issues, and fill a gap in mental health service delivery by providing almost immediate to non-clinical emotional support. However, transportation and the cost of some activities proved problematic.
GPs are increasingly using ‘social prescribing’ – including gardening, bingo sessions and dance lessons – as an alternative to antidepressants for lonely or depressed adult patients. However, recent research published in the medical journal BMJ open has raised serious doubts about its effectiveness.
But Fancourt insisted that social prescribing had “tremendous potential” and could “help address the determinants of mental illness, reduce the stigma and shame sometimes associated with mental health issues, and give young people a choice and control of their care”.
The World Health Organization defenders physical activities, especially outdoors, as an aid to physical and mental health.
“Social prescribing – involving activities like exercise, gardening and music – is a really exciting way to improve mental well-being. It looks at people holistically and tries to find non-medical ways to help find a way through the challenges they may face,” said Olly Parker, external affairs manager at the charity YoungMinds.
“However, it cannot substitute for other types of support such as talk therapies.”
He added: “Previous studies of social prescribing have shown positive results, with participants reporting increased levels of well-being and we are pleased that further work is underway to see what other benefits this approach has for children. and young people”.
The UCL trial is funded by the Prudence Trust, a grant-making charity which focuses on mental health services for young people.