Chronic health conditions — from diabetes and asthma to anxiety and depression — can impact just about every area of your life.

In addition to causing physical and mental symptoms, they can sometimes make it hard to leave the house, spend time with loved ones, or even work.

These extended effects only underscore the importance of addressing mental and physical health concerns in a holistic way. In other words, it’s essential to focus on taking care of the whole person, not just a set of symptoms.

Social prescribing aims to do just that by connecting people with chronic conditions to different types of community support, including social events, fitness classes, and social services.

Trained professionals, often called link workers or community connections, work with healthcare providers to offer referrals to these types of support.

It’s a concept that’s existed for a while in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, but it’s starting to gain traction in the United States, too.

Social prescribing largely exists to fill in healthcare treatment gaps.

Basic medical treatment doesn’t address every concern. For one, primary care providers don’t always have enough time to really get to know you and understand the complete picture of your life. You might also have wellness needs that aren’t strictly medical — at least not at first.

For example, loneliness can cause stress, which can eventually affect sleep, nutrition, and physical health.

But if you tell your primary care provider, “I’m lonely,” they may not be able to offer much in the way of immediate care.

That’s where link workers step in. These professionals can provide more specialized support if you struggle to meet basic wellness or social needs on your own.

A link worker spends time with you outside of regular doctor’s visits or therapy appointments. They get to know your unique needs, whether those involve friendship and human interaction, guidance on your financial situation, or access to exercise.

Then, they help you take action to meet those needs by referring you to helpful resources in your community.

Here’s a look at some of the core potential benefits of social prescribing:

It facilitates social connection

Social prescribing puts you in touch with other people, which can help relieve loneliness and improve quality of life. Isolation can play a major part in poor mental or physical health.

Sometimes, simply knowing you have other people to reach out to when you feel most alone can increase your optimism and help the challenges of life seem more manageable.

It provides pathways to change

In certain situations, you might need a little help addressing the things negatively affecting your health.

It’s not always easy to see solutions for yourself, especially when living with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety.

Even when you know some change could help, you might not know how to begin — and that’s completely normal.

When overwhelming emotions make it tough to try making healthy changes, like picking up a hobby or starting an exercise program, link workers can offer compassionate guidance and support to get started.

It helps you find needed resources

When life circumstances, such as job loss, the death of a loved one, or financial problems affect your health, medical treatment can sometimes address related symptoms.

Say your constant worry about finding a job before you need to pay rent affects your appetite and digestive health, so you eat mild foods and get tested for gastrointestinal conditions.

If you don’t deal with the underlying factors contributing to these symptoms, though, they’ll keep coming back and might get worse.

Part of social prescribing often involves helping people find outside services to help manage these sources of stress.

Potential referrals in this instance might involve:

  • debt counseling services
  • employment agencies
  • resume-writing classes

While not strictly related to physical or mental well-being, these services are still pretty essential. They help you take charge of your situation in a productive way, which can reduce stress and improve other symptoms.

Social prescribing can look very different from person to person, depending on their health and individual needs.

To illustrate, here are a few examples of how social prescribing might be used in the context of different chronic conditions.

Multiple sclerosis

You’re trying to get a handle on some muscle weakness and coordination problems, so your doctor recommends yoga or other gentle exercise to help develop strength and improve coordination.

With two small children at home, however, you have trouble finding time to exercise or make room in your schedule to learn and practice yoga.

You don’t see the point in describing your situation to your doctor, who you see once every few months for about 30 minutes. After all, how can they really help? That isn’t exactly their job.

But your link worker puts you in touch with a community childcare group where members take turns providing childcare. You also get a referral to a yoga studio that offers a significant discount when a doctor has recommended yoga.

Social anxiety

Social anxiety makes it difficult for you to make friends and open up to people.

In therapy, you’ve worked on strategies to help address fear and nervousness around interacting with others. But you still haven’t managed to meet new people because you can’t decide on an ideal situation.

You feel terrified of jumping into direct socialization, but you can’t think of any other option.

Social prescribing helps you identify a few interests linked by one important thing: They involve only a little direct socialization.

In the end, you decide to try out a local gardening class, a group hike, and an art class. These events allow you to spend time in the company of others and start a discussion when you feel comfortable.

Diabetes

Perhaps you and your doctor agree that you need to make some diet changes to better manage your condition. You want to learn more about the basics of nutrition and healthy eating, but you can’t find much online — just links to diet plans or expensive meals, which you aren’t interested in.

The endless searching discourages you and makes you feel like giving up. But your link worker helps you out by referring you to a local cooking class that teaches participants how to prepare nutritious, balanced meals on a budget.

Scientific research exploring the benefits of social prescribing is still in the early stages. Plus, social “prescriptions” vary widely, which can make them tough to study effectively.

It’s also difficult to measure success. Does success mean following through with a referral? Seeing continued health improvements after a set number of weeks or months?

Despite these limitations, though, social prescribing seems promising as an approach to holistic healthcare:

  • Research from 2018 suggests social prescribing programs can help reduce anxiety and lead to improved health and increased social connection. Many participants also reported a more positive outlook on life.
  • According to 2019 research, social prescribing seems to lead to better health outcomes for those who participate. This can, in turn, lead to fewer visits to primary care, resulting in lighter workloads for care providers.
  • Additional research from 2019 emphasizes the need for more scientific support while acknowledging that social prescribing programs have the potential to improve life for people with unaddressed healthcare needs.

Larger studies may help generate more evidence in support of social prescribing.

For now, these programs thrive in many areas, including England, where the National Health Service (NHS) now includes social prescribing as part of their long-term plan for care.

There’s more to good health than getting a yearly checkup and taking medications.

Social prescribing is an approach that seeks to fill in the gaps by connecting people with community resources.

While it isn’t super common in the United States yet, you can still ask your healthcare provider about services they can refer you to.


Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.