Social prescribing at the library

NHS England’s Director for Experience, Participation and Equalities marks Libraries Week by highlighting some of the ways that public libraries are helping the NHS promote health and wellbeing:

I recently met a woman who told me about the time she had lost the will to live.

She’d lost her job and with it her circle of friends, her mental health had deteriorated and she was struggling with a number of debilitating long-term conditions.

Things turned around after she had seen her GP. Rather than treat the symptoms, for example with anti-depressants, the doctor had sought to find a cure by referring her to a local scheme that encourages people to try something new, along with others with similar interests.

The woman I met had got involved with a singing club that gathered every week and through it had made new friends. Before long, she had set up her own club for local women and was thinking about making a return to the workplace. Her life, she told me, had been transformed and she had done this herself with her friends and neighbours, with the lightest of touches of help from the NHS. This kind of ‘social prescribing’ is growing throughout England but can only work if doctors know where to refer people.

A growing number of public libraries are playing their part in helping this happen.

In Warrington I recently visited a single new community centre in which were based GP practices, a leisure centre, a public library and space for community groups. This made it easy for doctors to refer patients into groups that can provide support, friendship and more. The prescription was in this case just yards away from the doctor’s surgery.

Not everyone goes to ask a doctor for help, however, which is another reason public libraries are important.

In Essex, the Connect Well in Essex programme has trained librarians and volunteers to signpost people directly to community groups and activities. Suffolk Open Space, supported by Suffolk Libraries, Julian Support and the local NHS, is just such a place, a relaxed group where you can meet new people, have a chat and make new friends.

And for those living with poor health, ‘Books on Prescription’ is available in many public libraries. This provides book tips for young people struggling with anxiety or depression or adults living with particular long-term conditions, often linked to reading clubs where you can discuss common experiences and explore solutions.

Readers have always believed in the benefits of reading but initiatives like these show how important libraries can be to our health and wellbeing, especially for people feeling lonely or isolated and living with poor health.

It’s great to see the NHS partnering public libraries to make sure we can help more people find answers to their troubles and not just treat the symptoms.

  • Libraries Week runs from 8 – 13 October and this blog was first published by the Libraries Taskforce.
Dr Neil Churchill

Neil is Director for People and Communities at NHS England, having joined the NHS after a 25-year career in the voluntary sector. His work includes understanding people’s experiences of the NHS, involving people and communities in decision-making and leading change to improve the quality and equality of care. He has a particular focus on strengthening partnerships with unpaid carers, volunteers and the voluntary sector.

Neil has previously been a non-executive director for the NHS in the South of England, is a member of the Strategy Board for the Beryl Institute and Chair of Care for the Carers in East Sussex. He is himself an unpaid carer. Neil tweets as @neilgchurchill

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