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Anxious? Depressed? Go surfing, says the NHS

The NHS is trialling prescribing activities such as dancing and surfing to young people who are struggling with their mental wellbeing

The NHS is planning to prescribe activities such as surfing, rollerskating and gardening to help young people who are anxious and depressed.

As part of a national study into whether ‘social prescribing’ can improve mental wellbeing, NHS mental health trusts will offer this unorthodox therapy to 600 young people across England who are currently on their waiting lists for care. The trial is being run by academics from University College London.

If the trial goes well, the NHS could make access to such activities available to depressed and anxious young people across England. This could help get wait times for accessing mental health care down, too (for ‘routine’ cases, the average wait is currently nine weeks for a first appointment).

“Young people’s mental health is one of the greatest challenges facing the NHS,” said Dr Daisy Fancourt, the UCL mental health expert running the trial. “Currently many young people referred to child and adolescent mental health services face long waits, during which time more than three-quarters experience a deterioration in their mental health.”

“Social prescribing has the potential to support young people while they wait, by providing access to a range of creative and social activities that could enhance their confidence, self-esteem and social support networks.”

The idea certainly throws up some pretty urgent questions: what if someone has such debilitating social anxiety that they cannot even bring themselves to go? Will it even work, with recent research published in the medical journal BMJ Open raising doubts about the efficacy of social prescribing? Who will cover the travel costs for those taking part? And, perhaps most pressingly, will the NHS even be able to afford to roll out pioneering treatments like these, when it’s already chronically underfunded?

Dr Fancourt and her team are planning to address questions like this in the trial, which will assess how much young people participate, the feasibility of making such activities available, and the costs involved.

Dr Fancourt stressed social prescribing had “enormous potential” and could “help address determinants of mental illness, decrease stigma and shame sometimes associated with mental health problems, and give young people choice and control of their care”. Additionally, the WHO recommends physical activities, especially outdoor activities, as an aid to both physical and mental health – but only time will tell whether the trial has any long-term impact on the participants’ wellbeing.