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Children encouraged to garden and fish in project on tackling loneliness

Children aged 9-13 will be prescribed gardening and fishing as part of research to tackle loneliness (Alamy/PA)
Children aged 9-13 will be prescribed gardening and fishing as part of research to tackle loneliness (Alamy/PA)

Children are to be “prescribed” activities including gardening, fishing and going to museums as part of research aiming to tackle loneliness among young people.

The project, involving nine to 13-year-olds, will track how effective so-called social prescribing is in reducing feelings of isolation, mental health difficulties, improving school attendance and how cost effective it is.

Social prescribing is described by the NHS as an approach which connects people to activities, groups, and services in their community to meet their practical, social and emotional needs.

But researchers for the four-year project, led by by University College London (UCL), said while adults are increasingly being offered this option, younger people could be missing out on the benefits.

Co-principal investigator, Professor Daisy Fancourt, from the UCL department of behavioural science and health, said: “While GPs are increasingly adopting social prescribing for adults, young people are not yet routinely accessing the service, as they tend not to go to the GP for health and wellbeing support in the way that adults might.

“Our programme will help provide evidence on the potential benefits that social prescribing may have for children too.”

Twelve primary and secondary schools are currently being recruited for the pilot phase of the project, starting this year, with an aim of working with around 100 pupils.

The project will be expanded to 30 schools across the UK next year, as it aims to scale up to involve 600 pupils.

Children identified as feeling lonely or isolated will be connected to a link worker or social prescriber for the research, and supported to engage with an activity tailored to the young person’s interests which could be anything from sport to art, and gardening to fishing.

The effects on wellbeing, loneliness, mental health difficulties, academic attendance and achievement will be measured and compared with those for a control group of children who are signposted to an activity but not given extra support from the social prescriber.

Researchers noted a 2018 Office for National Statistics survey showing that 11.3% of 10 to 15-year-olds in the UK reported often feeling lonely, rising to 19.5% of children living in a city and 27.5% of children on free school meals.

A Government report last year suggested anxiousness among pupils appeared to have “worsened” during the 2021/22 academic year despite a return to full-time in-person schooling after the pandemic.

Rates of probable mental disorders among young people in England remained “at elevated levels” compared to before the pandemic, according to the Department for Education’s (DfE) annual State of the Nation report, suggesting the recovery of children and young people’s wellbeing towards pre-pandemic levels had been “inconsistent”.

Co-principal investigator Dr Daniel Hayes, also from UCL, said: “Loneliness has become an increasing problem among adolescents in the UK. This problem is especially acute in cities and among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“There is promising early evidence that social prescribing can help young people. Our study will add to this evidence base, assessing how effective social prescribing is in reducing loneliness and mental health difficulties, enhancing wellbeing and improving academic attendance and attainment, as well as how cost effective it is.

“In our project, a link worker will meet the young person for six to eight sessions, learning what matters most to them, what their gifts and strengths are, in order to provide tailored support, linking them with local organisations and activities that will be of interest to them.”

Professor Fancourt added: “Friendships and social connections are cornerstones of healthy adolescent development.

“If young people are lonely, they are at increased risk of developing depression, physical problems such as poor sleep, and later ill health, including cardiovascular disease.”

The Increasing Adolescent social and Community support (Inact) research programme is funded by the Kavli Trust, and also involves collaboration from the University of Manchester, the National Academy for Social Prescribing and the Social Prescribing Youth Network.