Finalist 2023

Reducing Isolation and Loneliness Through Social Prescribing

Today / Victorian Department of Health

Reimagining a design-led response to mental ill health, loneliness and social isolation through community connection.

Social prescribing is an initiative of the Victorian Department of Health’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Division. It’s about reimagining support for people experiencing psychological distress, mental ill health and addiction. It proposes a design-led response to loneliness and social isolation through community-based activities.

Design Brief:

Australians are experiencing higher rates of social isolation and loneliness, and this is especially true in older Victorians; some are stuck in a cycle of psychological distress, mental ill health and addiction. The level of social connection and support that exists between individuals and groups needs to improve for better mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

Our challenge was to co-design a new initiative that reimagined how we support people experiencing psychological distress, mental ill health and addiction (including their carers, families and supporters) by engaging them in non-clinical, community-based activities.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

32 consumers and carers came together to co-design a new service model for 'Social Prescribing’. Our solution is being trialed across six locations, supporting Victorians to be included in, and connected to, their communities. The solution is a new initiative embedded within the new Mental Health and Wellbeing Locals to connect people with community-based activities that best meet their interests and needs.

We arrived here after a generative design process to define the service journey and identify the roles, responsibilities, and qualities of the desired workforce. Our remit was across the experiential and operational aspects of the initiative.

The service design set out to deliver an in-person experience that doesn’t depend on technical literacy. This was to ensure a more inclusive experience for Victorians, to increase the level of comfort and confidence for service uptake for those with experiences of mental ill health and addiction, and create a curated experience for navigating community activities.

Throughout the service design, it was imperative the voice of our lived experience co-designers was at the forefront: to maintain integrity and amplify their stories, ideas, and aspirations. We brought together their words, drawings, and soundbites to inspire the new model of care and set a vision and guidelines to support local implementation, inspire ongoing local co-design, and embed the needs of lived experience.

Importantly, through this process, a majority of co-designers expressed increased confidence and connection with others. Co-design itself became a way to support the greater connection that we were striving for in designing ‘social prescribing’. Many co-designers have continued to extend and share their newfound design knowledge across other system reform projects, and taken on roles on regional bodies and steering committees. Others are in the process of applying for front-line roles in the Social Prescribing initiative itself.

Design Excellence

It was imperative we created a safe, inclusive, and meaningful process for those who have or may still be experiencing mental ill health and addiction. We coached four people with lived experience in design thinking and facilitation to share power, enable decision-making at every level and work together to create trauma-informed spaces for our 32 co-designers.

We developed playful and sensory activities that appealed to different needs and modes of expression to imagine and map the desired future-state initiative. We mapped the service journey through a metaphor; the ‘Reconnection River’, to represent a sense of calm, peace and play. Each element of the initiative was carefully mapped to the stages of the river to set the tone, vision and guidelines for implementation.

We adapted visual storytelling, creative writing, modelling and roleplay to test the service experience in real-time. We visualised the built form and how it needed to significantly shift from traditional clinical settings to encourage service uptake; explored how the initiative would have to adapt and support people’s various levels of confidence; how to maintain support and momentum in group activities when there are feelings of anxiousness and depression; and wrote letters to the future workforce to describe the aspiration for the responsibilities and qualities of the roles.

The service journey embedded the needs of community organisations to support commercial, operational and workforce considerations of the model. It has redefined the budgets, training, and support providers will receive in order to deliver the initiative.

Design Innovation

We took a truly unique approach to designing with lived experience in the mental health sector. We needed to create a new design process that prioritised partnership and challenged traditional power structures and enabled shared decision-making.

Across three months, we coached four people with lived experience in design thinking and facilitation to enable decision-making at every level and work together to create trauma-informed spaces for our 32 co-designers. This led to outputs that challenged the traditional policy and report outputs for government to ones that were driven by storytelling and captured the genuine human experience and desire.

We mailed design kits during the height of COVID-19 each fortnight to our co-designers to cater for various accessibility needs and blend the physical creative process with the digital one. The sensory elements allowed for better, braver outcomes for our co-designers with anxiety and PTSD. Their physical creations, from drawings to sculptures, were transformed into clickable experiences that brought to life the desired initiative. The outcome was a series of story-led artefacts that the humans delivering the initiative are strongly connecting with, embracing, and ultimately implementing over traditional ‘report’ outputs.

This initiative will be a first in Victoria and Australia and build an evidence-based for expanded services across the nation. It is designed to radically shift the power from clinicians to the community and create new pathways for people to support their mental health and wellbeing through connections with their community.

Design Impact

A supportive service for Victorians to access community-based activities was endorsed by the Victorian Mental Health and Wellbeing Promotion Adviser, a project control group led by lived experience was established, and the initiative is being adopted locally and trialled across six locations with a plan to scale across Victoria.

Social prescribing is intended to bring a new, holistic approach to mental health and wellbeing and provide non-clinical ways to improve confidence, self-esteem, a sense of control and empowerment. This is a significant shift from the medical model, recognising that communities are well-placed to support mental health and wellbeing.

The positive impact the project had on the co-design cohort deserves recognition. Sharing your trauma and experiences as a co-designer can be a relentless job. Take Social Prescribing: we worked with people whose social anxiety was so crippling that they couldn’t make it through a grocery shop without a panic attack. And here we were, putting them into a series of group workshops. Yet the process we took our co-designers through empowered and inspired them to continue advocating for lived and living experience-led change. Our co-designers have continued to extend and share their newfound design knowledge across other system reform projects and take on roles on regional bodies and steering committees. Others are in the process of applying for front-line roles in the Social Prescribing initiative.

When the systemic and individual scales are combined, this project had a symbiotic impact on both the Department and the co-designers. It shifted the Department’s mindset of how powerful it can be when the voices, stories, and ideas of people with lived experience are embedded within project outcomes. And it facilitated a positive co-design experience that validated for people with lived and living experience the benefit of lending their power to design positive social change.

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