The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), Consumers Health Forum of Australia (CHF) and Mental Health Australia are urging the government to implement a national social prescribing scheme to tackle Australia’s mental health and wellbeing crisis.

Mental ill health is a growing problem in Australia and has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2017, GPs across Australia have rated mental health as the most common presentation they see as part of the RACGP’s annual Health of the Nation survey. Approximately 20% of patients consult their GP for what are primarily social problems.

The RACGP, CHF and Mental Health Australia are calling on the Australian Government to support the development of a nationally coordinated scheme dedicated to tackling the problem with innovative local solutions.

Social prescribing is about health and wellbeing support. It involves a health professional supporting a patient to take up non-medical activities and services to supplement conventional healthcare. It aims to address the key risk factors for poor health, including mental health problems, social isolation, and chronic illness. It has been shown to deliver positive health benefits and improved self-care capability.

A 2019 survey conducted by RACGP and CHF found over 90% of GPs and allied health professionals believe that referring patients to non-medical services in the community is extremely helpful for improving health outcomes. 68% of consumers say they are interested in participating in community programs to address health and wellbeing issues.

RACGP President Dr Karen Price said the need for a national scheme was clear.

“As we tackle the ongoing pandemic and transition to COVID normal, we must address the considerable social, mental and physical health impacts on our community,” she said.

“GPs are seeing more and more patients presenting with mental health and wellbeing concerns, they’re lonely, isolated, and not active. It’s very concerning because we know these problems are key risk factors for poor health – people who are experiencing loneliness, for example, are more at risk of their physical health declining.

CHF CEO Leanne Wells said social prescribing is a vital development for patients and was recommended by CHF’s 2020 Consumer Commission as a solution to the many fault lines in our health system exposed by COVID.

“Social prescribing is a way of delivering truly person-centred, comprehensive care that embraces social and lifestyle risk factor management support as well as conventional medical care”

“A nationally coordinated approach to social wellbeing and support will ease the burden on our hospital system and help to keep patients happy and healthy in our community.

Mental Health Australia CEO Dr Leanne Beagley said a national approach to social prescribing needs to be considered when finalising, and then implementing, the forthcoming National Agreement for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

“Social prescribing is about how best to deal with mental health, and illness, at a community level,” said Dr Beagley.

“It is about understanding what a person needs in addressing their health problems which often goes beyond clinical interventions to the heart of wellbeing – and that is social connection.

“To join with the RACGP and CHF to advocate for a national approach to social prescribing is an important pillar of our national advocacy approach to ensure people with lived experience continue to have an effective voice and improve our mental health system through person led co-design.”

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