‘Social prescription’ plan for mental health

Patients with mental health issues face long waiting times to receive psychological therapies and can often be left socially isolated. Picture: Robert Perry
Patients with mental health issues face long waiting times to receive psychological therapies and can often be left socially isolated. Picture: Robert Perry
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THE mental health charity SAMH has unveiled plans to work with GPs in deprived 
areas to help patients access a programme of activities that would act as a “social prescription” instead of, or alongside, anti-depressants.

The initiative, which would be piloted in Parkhead and Castlemilk in Glasgow, is aimed at providing early intervention for patients facing long waiting times for psychological therapies; it would also ease the burden on hard-pressed GPs who struggle to provide emotional support during short appointment times.

Plans for the project follow a survey that showed 84 per cent of GPs thought there were gaps in service provision for patients with mental health problems in their area, and 81 per cent said they would like resources to help patients self-manage their mental health conditions.

Other studies have suggested that while one in three GP appointments have a mental health component, the ratio is much higher in “Deep End” practices. Deep End is the term given to the 100 practices with the most deprived patient populations in Scotland.

SAMH has applied for funding to allow GPs in Parkhead Health Centre and Castlemilk Practice – both situated in areas of multiple deprivation – to refer patients with mental health issues to the charity’s Reach Out project. Reach Out encourages people to get involved in art, craft, mindfulness and physical activities to help build confidence and resilience. It is aimed at breaking down social isolation and helping people to develop coping strategies so they can manage their own condition. Launched two years ago, the programme has already supported 120 people, but this would be the first time it would be available via a healthcare setting, even though that is where the majority of those requiring support are most likely to present.

“Our research has shown that people often wait much longer to go to their GP with mental health problems than they would with physical problems and then, when they get there, they have to wait a longer time for treatment,” said outgoing SAMH chairwoman Lindsay Burley.

“Nine times out of 10, early intervention is going to impact positively on the outcome – so our aim is to get people to the surgery earlier, but also to give GPs a much wider range of things in their toolkit.

“At the moment, they have a prescription pad and a range of drug therapies and sometimes that’s entirely appropriate, but we want to see how our services can link in and give the GPs a route into alternative interventions. These interventions may not replace the kind of therapies a clinical psychologist would give, but will allow patients to sit down and talk about their problems.

“Often these problems will not be medical, they will be about employment and benefits – and that’s something most GPs lack the skills or the time to deal with.”

Dr Burley said such “social prescribing” was of benefit in an era where GP recruitment was proving difficult and many duties traditionally carried out by doctors were being passed to other health care workers.

Reflecting on her six years of chairing SAMH, Dr Burley said she believed much progress had been made in tackling stigma, but that waiting times were still longer for psychological therapies than they were for cancer treatment. The target waiting time for psychological therapies in Scotland is 18 weeks, but last year few health boards hit the target of 90 per cent of patients being seen in this timeframe.