Cork woman Mary O’Reilly was hospitalised for three months over the pandemic with sepsis. Her husband died on Christmas Eve — she had not been able to see him for many months before his death.
After being discharged from hospital, Ms O'Reilly's mobility was badly reduced and her family in the UK could rarely visit due to Covid restrictions.
"My life, from being quite active, was turned upside down in the last two years,” she says.
Getting back out and into society was extremely difficult for Ms O'Reilly, and she says she wouldn't have been able to manage it without the help of social prescribing.
The programme, delivered through the Family Resource Centre in Midleton was officially launched by Minister of State for Public Health, Wellbeing, and Drug Strategy Frank Feighan this week, but has already changed people’s lives in east Cork.
Social prescribing recognises that health is heavily determined by social factors such as poverty, isolation, and loneliness. It allows health professionals to refer patients to non-clinical community supports which can significantly improve their health and wellbeing.
“The first cup of coffee I had out with someone in two-and-a half years was Nora [Conway, social prescriber in east Cork]," says Ms O'Reilly.
“Going through the door is the hardest bit when you’re alone. You don’t know where to start. If you’re isolated for so long, facing into somewhere where you don’t have a friendly face and opening the door, it just seems impossible, you can’t do it. And trying to find out where things are is not easy. I would not have known this was going on without Nora."
Social prescribing helped Ms O'Reilly connect with local groups like armchair yoga, mindfulness, and healthy ageing, which has helped her forge new friendships, rebuild her confidence, and improve her mobility and mental resilience.
Nora Conway is driving the programme in east Cork.
“It can help people with cognitive decline, physical disabilities, people who are lonely. You sit down with that person, listen to them, tease out the issues, and co-produce a care plan for them," she says.
“It could be linking them up with a walking group, a mindfulness group, creative arts.
"People come in, they can often be a little wary or sensitive, not knowing what’s ahead of them. And once you link them in with something, the feedback you get — that it was really worthwhile or changed their sense of self — is really rewarding.”
Ukrainians anxious to integrate, young mothers, single parents, and older people all use Ms Conway's HSE-funded service in east Cork.
Mr Feighan says that social prescribing is a “simple yet profound idea” and something he is “quite passionate about".
He is pushing to secure funding in the upcoming budget to continue and expand social prescribing programmes around the country.
“Social prescribing is one of the means by which we can achieve great, great social connection and counteract isolation,” he says.
“It has been shown to have positive emotional and social outcomes, especially in reducing social exclusion and to disadvantaged, isolated, lonely, and vulnerable people, many of whom experience depression, anxiety."
Doireann Gough of Alone, a charity which supports older people living on their own, says they now refer at least half of their clients to the social-prescribing service.
“It’s so incredibly important. People do die of loneliness. And that’s unnecessary. There are organisations out there to help people get out and about again.
“You’re only ever one phone call away from getting involved with a group or with people who share your interests.
“Social prescribing is tapping into a community model of mental health care, not just relying on the medical model, so people can create their own pathways to better health.
“It can change their sense of self.”