Viewpoint: Social prescribers have key role in tackling over-medicalisation of poor mental health

Understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness is key to providing personalised care. Christiana Melam argues that social prescribing link workers have the skills to support those with poor mental health, which could help free-up specialist services for patients with more complex needs.

National Association of Link Workers chief executive Christiana Melam

In the pursuit of providing personalised care, the art of tailoring treatments to suit individual needs is a key objective. A clear understanding of the distinction between mental illness and mental health is central to achieving this.

Recognising that every person possesses mental health, reflecting their current state of wellbeing is paramount. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health constitutes a state of wellbeing that enables individuals to realise their potential, navigate life's challenges, contribute positively to their community, and enhance productivity.

Distinguishing mental health from mental Illness

The WHO says 'there is no health without mental health', which underscores the profound impact of mental wellbeing on our emotional, psychological, and social dimensions.

Mental health is the crucible from which our thoughts, emotions, and actions emerge, shaping our lives from childhood through adulthood. Because of this, understanding the dynamics of mental health and its intricate relationship with mental illness is a pivotal step towards providing effective care.

Mental health and mental illness each call for a distinct approach. Poor mental health often sprouts from the social determinants of health and responds well to non-clinical interventions. In contrast, mental illness encompasses diagnosable disorders necessitating the expertise of specialised clinical care.

Nevertheless, a complex challenge emerges when both scenarios are coalesced into a single waiting list. This unintentional confluence inadvertently leads to a decline in individuals' wellbeing as they await appropriate care. Addressing this issue becomes imperative to provide timely and effective care.

How social prescribing link workers can help

Social prescribing link workers engage in upstream interventions to address the non-medical determinants of mental health. These determinants encompass factors such as unemployment, social welfare, substandard housing, and limited access to education.

Social prescribing link workers can proactively tackle these issues before they erode mental health or precipitate a crisis, empowering individuals and establishing a supportive community infrastructure for sustainable wellbeing.

Given the escalating demands on our struggling health services, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living, there is an ever-increasing need to recruit more social prescribing link workers so we can effectively tackle some of these issues.

Ensuring patients receive tailored support

Promoting a nuanced understanding of the differentiation between mental health and mental illness is not just a call to action; it's a mandate for change. Through this we can ensure individuals receive precisely tailored treatment that aligns with their unique circumstances.

This approach effectively curtails the pervasive tendency to over-medicalise life-oriented issues, and could ultimately help reduce bloated waiting lists. As we move forward, let's champion a healthcare system that respects individuals' distinctive needs, distinguishing between mental health and mental illness. Doing so will pave the way for a more responsive, effective, and compassionate approach to mental wellbeing.

  • Christiana Melam is chief executive of the National Association of Link Workers, the only UK professional membership network for social prescribing link workers

Christiana is speaking at a free online event run by the Patients Association on 28 September called Social prescribing: what's in it for patients? More details are here.

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