The art of social prescribing

Last year the government began to fully embrace art and culture as an alternative means to benefit the wellbeing of the nation. GPs are now allowed to prescribe, or recommend, undertaking activities to do with sports, music, dance and art as part of a bid to improve people’s mental health.


Hannah Lavery, Learning and Engagement Coordinator at the Scottish Poetry Library. Photo credit: Iona Young


The NHS define social prescribing as ‘an approach (or range of approaches) for connecting people with non-medical sources of support or resources within the community which are likely to help with the health problems they are experiencing’. As well as mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, the idea is to prevent loneliness and social isolation which can later lead to mental health problems.

The University of Edinburgh Museums Services are embracing social prescribing with their pilot project ‘Prescribe Culture’. Their aim is to benefit the student community through community referral or non-pharmacological support.


Andy Shanks, University of Edinburgh Director of Student Wellbeing. Photo credit: Iona Young


The reason behind the project is an increase in students registering mental health issues. The increase could be attributed to more awareness around mental health and the facilities available, however other contributing factors must be taken in to account:

“1 in 4 people in the UK have a mental health disorder so it is really common for people to suffer. We now also have a bigger range of students from different backgrounds. And more people coming to university – it used to be 1 in 10 who went to university and now it’s more like 1 in 2,” explains Andy Shanks, University of Edinburgh Director of Student Wellbeing.

The rise in mental health issues in young adults in the student community can also be attributed to the 24 hour competitive culture. With social media people are always comparing themselves to others. This combined with pressure from families, working during university, crippling student debt and constant looming deadlines can be overwhelming.


Dr Ewan Clark, GP at Edinburgh University Health Service. Photo credit: Iona Young


Dr Ewan Clark, GP at the University Health Service, has also noticed the added pressure from the increase in student patients due to mental health issues: “there is less stigma and more awareness which is a positive thing, however it is also a burden”.

For him it is also important to remember that what suits one person does not suit another. However he sees social prescribing as a positive step forward:

“It can be used with other therapies or on its own. It is good for people who have tried everything, and (in comparison to some medication) it is a safe thing to do.”

The pilot project aims to work together with cultural organisations to use creativity as a form of early intervention and prevention of more serious mental health problems down the line. For them it is important to support University Student Support Officers, Campus GPs, nurses and other care professionals through developing a referral system which will allow the collaboration with the arts to be a clear and simple process.

This will begin with a healthcare, or allied health professional who will make the initial referral to a link worker. This link worker will then be able to provide information on a range of local voluntary, community and social enterprise groups.

For now the project will take part within the Edinburgh University student community, however if successful they would like the model to be expanded in order to become a citywide initiative and help contribute towards the City of Edinburgh’s promise of ‘Delivering a Healthier City for All Ages’.

People and organisations outside Edinburgh University are also encouraged to join the initiative.

For more about recreational activities and mental health, see Maria Gran’s article about the therapeutic effects of knitting.

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