It doesn’t have to be pills: it could be football

There is a growing view that as a society we medicalise too many problems. Loneliness and sadness are not necessarily mental health issues. Few people need medication for grief and bereavement. Repeat prescriptions for backache might not always be the best answer. Colds won’t be cured by antibiotics. Prevention, as ever, is better than cure.

Hard-pressed GPs might not feel that they have many alternatives other than reaching for the prescription pad for those turning up in their surgeries regularly. But alternative forms of help might be at hand in the shape of “social prescribing”. Backed by the newish Secretary of State for Health, local doctors are now being encouraged to look more widely for other solutions. This could mean that GPs might, for example, “prescribe” cookery classes, walking groups or art clubs to people saying that they are lonely. For those with some physical issues the suggestion might be for people to get allotments or take up zumba.

Or it might be to join a five-a-side football team. Doctors in Italy have used football for years to treat mental health issues. The theory is that exercise of this sort stimulates the body’s own anti-depressants, while interaction on the pitch stimulates the so-called mirror neurons which can help us better to understand the intentions of people around us. The result is that some patients with real psychosis can find that their symptoms ease through regular team sport.

As counsellors in Eastbourne, Hastings, Bexhill and other parts of East Sussex we recognise the problem which the Government says it wants to fix. With some of the clients we see, we often find ourselves suggesting that part of their recovery might be to boost their social activity through joining a choir or offering to help in a charity shop, for instance. This can provide lonely people with a renewed sense of purpose, more contact with others, and possibly new friends, so raising their sense of well-being.

This sort of activity might accompany talking therapy with a qualified counsellor or taking medication for depression or anxiety. Or sometimes it might be the next stage after therapy ends, as people regain power over their own lives.

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