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April 9, 2021
by Tina Arnoldi

Social Prescribing May Benefit Mental Health

April 9, 2021 07:41 by Tina Arnoldi  [About the Author]

Photo by Sarah Brown on UnsplashMore medical providers are referring primary care patients to non-medical sources of support, often for mental health. “One of the popular activities in pilot studies is suggesting patients engage in activities that support new hobbies. These activities relate to other leisure activities, such as volunteering, in that they provide distraction, novelty, cognitive stimulation, belongingness as well as enhancing coping skills and agency and (when engaged in as part of a group) provide social support.”

When asked about prescribing hobbies as a mental health professional, Billy Roberts, LISW-S with Focused Mind ADHD Counseling said it is foundational to his work. “Much of the therapeutic process, particularly for depression, involves helping people invest in their lives,” said Roberts. “When clients engage in hobbies, mood and self-esteem improve, as people engage in new learning, connect to others, and demonstrate value driven behaviors.”

Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC with Take Root Therapy, agrees with Roberts that it’s beneficial for clients to engage in activities aligned with values. However, Lurie believes this approach can have a negative impact for some clients, especially those with anxiety or depression. She explains, “If their mental illness makes it difficult to follow through or to engage in new activities, even ones they really want to try, they may end up feeling worse about themselves.”

While Marcus Gordon, Unwanted Life, also likes the idea of social prescribing, he has found it challenging to do in practice and would never suggest it as a replacement for therapy. “It’s difficult to get a client motivated to engage in a hobby even if they do find one that interests them.” 

Gordon has tried hobbies himself as a client. “They didn't help me; they worked as a distraction only when I was doing them, and then it was back to my depressive state. That's the problem with distractions; they don't help you when you're not using them, and you can't use them all the time. Engaging in hobbies gives me something to do, but it hasn't done anything to improve my mental health.”  

But could they become more than a distraction? Dr. Alex Lee, DSW, LCSW, Director of Coaching at Ria Health thinks so. “Hobbies can become protective factors against at-risk behaviors and mental health issues because they offer alternative coping skills, something to look forward to at the end of the week and a new skill to help emotionally regulate themselves.”

And social prescribing addresses inactivity, a common symptom with mental illness, especially depression. Psychologist Dr Raffaello Antonino discusses the impact of this on many patients. “An individual gradually reduces pleasant activities, fueled by negative self-talk like 'what's the point?'. This can spiral to the point of rarely leaving home, cutting down on social contacts, and spending hours in bed ruminating on past mistakes and a meaninglessness present. Depression can make a person forget what makes them satisfied with life and gives them a sense of meaning.” 

“Hobbies allow us to focus on the present instead. They help us become active again and often involve interacting with others, which addresses the isolation found in people feeling depressed. Hobbies can make us feel passionate again about a specific activity, reminding us of how a sense of achievement feels like and, in doing so, boosting our self-confidence and self-esteem. They can make us feel better about ourselves and return meaning to our lives.” 

There’s no shortage of options for hobbies as part of a social prescribing plan. Steve Cohen, RN, MSN, CRNI, with Medvesta Hypnosis Healthcare uses several, including creative writing and bullet journaling. “Writing is a beautiful outlet for self-expression. It help bring together a mixture of things on my patient's mind. We pick whatever stimulates their interest and meets their primary sensory areas of the brain's five sensory systems (taste, olfaction, touch, hearing, and vision). So, if they want to write a good story and are visual, I encourage them to start a journal and write what they see in their mind.  Bullet journaling is helpful with organizing their days. It is an excellent tool implementing new habits and keeping track of tasks. It also boosts mental health by being a place to record thoughts and feelings.”

Therapist Sarah O'Leary with Estes Therapy reminds us that “scheduling activities makes us more likely to do them,” which implies it is worth it to at least suggest this with clients. If they put it on their calendars, they are more inclined to follow through.  “There is something about the word ‘prescribe’ because people respond to it” added Melissa (Reilly) Zawisza, LCSW-S with Reilly Counseling. 

About the Author

Tina Arnoldi

Tina Arnoldi, MA is a business consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. She has reviewed books for PsychCentral and has a portfolio on Contently. You can learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com


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