Social prescriptions: a “ray of sunshine” for those with mental-health challenges

Categories: Our Perspectives

Across Canada, it is estimated that 1 in 5 patients who present to family doctors’ offices and primary care settings are experiencing a significant mental health challenge. In my career as a family physician, this was one of the most common reasons that people sought medical help.

May 1-7 is Mental Health Week in Canada – a time to pause and reflect on the overwhelming impact that the loss of one’s mental health has on all of us, including those afflicted, the families and friends supporting them, and the workplaces and communities being deprived of the valuable contributions that those afflicted could be making.

Unfortunately, the health system resources needed to help those with mental-health challenges in Canada are sadly lacking. While efforts to augment those resources are being made, it will be a long time before they are sufficient.

One ray of sunshine peeking through this troubling reality is the emerging recognition that many individuals experiencing mental health problems can also be helped significantly by “non-medical” or “non-clinical” interventions related to activities in the social environment.

Non-clinical “social” interventions and how they help

A major component of anxiety and depression is a loss of self-esteem – the feeling that one’s identity and value to others is diminished. Ongoing studies are showing the benefit of non-medical “social” interventions in helping people re-establish their connections with both their inner selves and the world around them. Doing so provides a greater power to cope with and overcome underlying physical and mental-health challenges.

The positive impact of non-clinical approaches has grown to the point that many family physicians and mental-health professionals now include “Social Prescribing” as part of their therapeutic arsenal.

A Social Prescription is a referral by a medical or health professional to a non-medical / non-clinical activity or program to help individuals recover their mental and physical health and wellbeing. Social Prescriptions include a broad spectrum of activities, such as choirs; gardening clubs; exercise or dance classes; and art, music, and writing groups.

The WCC programme as non-clinical support

About 10 years ago, Susan Turk – the visionary founder and leader of what has grown to become The Writers Collective of Canada (WCC) – launched community writing workshops in the Greater Toronto Area.

Each year, hundreds of individuals experiencing psychological trauma have benefitted from the opportunity that WCC’s workshops provide to express themselves, rediscover, and explore their inner voices.

Many of WCC’s workshops are hosted by partner agencies who serve individuals experiencing significant mental health challenges.This includes the recent launch of very successful workshops for mental-health patients at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga. Ongoing research and evaluation of the WCC workshops over the past 5 years affirms the positive outcomes.

Mental Health Week: a time to reflect and reach out

Mental Health Week is an opportunity for us all to focus on the importance of mental health. It is an ideal time to reach out and support those living with mental health challenges as well as the medical and social providers that offer essential care and programs for them.

The WCC salutes all who strive to better understand and help those with mental-health challenges. We look forward to continuing to contribute our unique community writing workshop programme as one modality that can help individuals rediscover themselves as the valued family members, friends, and community contributors they are.

As the vision of the WCC declares: Through writing together we empower every voice, celebrate every story and change the world!

Calvin Gutkin MD
Past Executive Director and CEO of The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Founding WCC Board Member

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