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Museum visits for lonely kids are just what doctors should order

By: Dr. Heather Dunlap and Dr. Sue Bennett

Social interactions are key to children’s and teen’s growth and development. With unprecedented levels of isolation being encountered during the COVID pandemic, the widespread effects of seclusion on young people’s mental health has emerged as a health crisis in its own right.

It’s time we start taking the impact of social isolation on child health more seriously.

The Vanier Social Pediatric Hub (VSPH) is a CHEO community-based pediatric hub that cares for inner-city families that face significant barriers when attempting to access health, social and community activities. Whether it is income, transportation, or language barrier-related, many children and youth from our hub and beyond miss out on programs that help foster resilience. Even prior to the COVID pandemic, we were left wondering – what can we as pediatricians do?

A couple of years ago, a potential answer arose: Social prescribing (SP).

Social prescribing is a movement that originated in the United Kingdom with the goal of having healthcare professionals “prescribe” community activities of all kinds to patients to combat the deleterious effects of loneliness. Decades of research now exist showing how SP can address the impact of social isolation in adults. Here in Ontario, the Alliance for Healthier Communities piloted SP initiatives at 11 diverse community health centres, demonstrating that SP improved self-reported mental health in their adult population. Very little research, however, has focused on children and youth living in vulnerable situations.

Consequently, our team decided to explore the impact of SP in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Nature, which donated free day passes. We distributed these passes to a subset of our families and met with them after their visit at the museum to hear about their experiences. Bus tickets were provided when needed.

A cohort of families participated and the feedback was unanimous. Every family saw the museum visit as a positive experience and expressed an interest in returning. The participants commented on the enriching learning experience and emphasized their appreciation of spending time with their family. One child captured the positive impact of the visit, saying: “I feel great today because I get to see animals, plants and other things.”

In the National Capital, we are fortunate to have a wonderful resource of seven federally funded museum venues. Based on our initial experience with the Canadian Museum of Nature, this initiative should be expanded to Ottawa’s other museums and the National Arts Centre and we are currently liaising with them to investigate the impact of SP initiatives for our high-needs families.

But it isn’t only visits to museum and art venues that we see as opportunities to expand social prescribing. For mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, which is increasingly affecting children and youth, healthcare professionals are limited to offering medications or referrals to often wait-listed therapies. Imagine if that same professional had a list of activities that they could review with the patient and consider giving a “prescription” based on the patient’s interests. True, many community centers or agencies already offer discounted or free programming, but these families may not have the tools to navigate the identification and enrolment process. Physicians and nurse practitioners, who form longitudinal and meaningful relationship with families, could be that link.

Social isolation and its consequent negative mental health is not a new issue, but COVID has certainly highlighted its dangers. In our opinion, every child should have a right to equal opportunities and access to cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activities.

We see social prescribing as one solution worth considering.

Dr. Heather Dunlap is a fourth year pediatric resident at CHEO with an interest in advocacy and social pediatrics. Dr. Sue Bennett is a CHEO pediatrician, professor at the University of Ottawa, and co-medical director of the Vanier Social Pediatric Hub.

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