'It changed my life': New pilot project tests health benefits of social prescribing

For years, doctors have encouraged patients, especially those struggling with loneliness and isolation, to exercise, eat better and socialize. But actually handing out "social prescriptions" may provide the gentle nudge some need to take action on their health.

11 Ontario community health centres taking part in program that other provinces have shown interest in

Hayfa Mousa has been taking part in social programs at the Stonegate Community Health Centre for seven years, and says the benefits have been life-changing. Eleven sites across Ontario are taking part in a pilot project to test social prescribing. (Grant Linton/ CBC)

In a bustling kitchen at a Toronto-area community health centre, Hayfa Mousa pauses as she reflects on the last seven years of her life.

Her eyes fill as she recalls the stress and isolation she felt before finally finding community and calm. Originally from Iraq, the 56-year-old cares for an adult daughter who underwent a heart transplant.

"It changed my life," says Mousa of the facility in suburban Etobicoke in Toronto as she glances around the kitchen. Its countertops are stacked with bright fruit and vegetables, and people sample fresh guacamole and spicy tacos. 

The Stonegate Community Health Centre is one of 11 sites across Ontario taking part in a pilot project to test social prescribing — encouraging patients to enhance their well-being with healthier food, more physical activity and greater social contact.

It's not quite a new idea.

For years, doctors have encouraged patients struggling with loneliness and isolation to exercise, eat better, and socialize.

Participants cook and exercise together as part of the FoodFit program, which was developed and funded by Community Food Centres Canada. (Grant Linton/ CBC)

"It's not a replacement for the clinical care that you need, but it can really help," says Kate Mulligan, director of policy and communications with the Alliance for Healthier Communities, a network of community-based health-care organizations, who says other provinces have also shown interest in the pilot project.

"What's new about social prescribing is that it helps connect more people to those services. The kinds of people that maybe need a bit more of a nudge."

Prescriptions for cooking classes, tai chi

That nudge comes in the form of a prescription for activities like cooking classes and tai chi.

For Gina Caradonna, 63, it was enough to get her out of the house — something she admits wasn't always easy.

A woman with short, dark hair and glasses poses for a portrait in front of a bulletin board.
Kate Mulligan, with the Alliance for Healthier Communities, says a final report on the social prescription pilot project is expected in March, but already other provinces are showing an interest. (Grant Linton/CBC)

"Because I'm disabled, just even getting up in the morning …," she says, shaking her head. "This has been a real challenge."  

The jewelry maker was skeptical when her doctor first brought up the idea. But she was willing to give it a try. 

She signed onto the FoodFit program, a 12-week healthy eating and exercise regimen for people living on low incomes. 

Caradonna says she hasn't missed a session and she's usually the first to arrive.

"Coming here every week has given me a purpose and something to look forward to," she says as she dices up tomatoes for salsa.

"It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like. There's no judgment."

Gina Caradonna says she's learned practical things, like how to properly read a food label, but what she appreciates most is getting together with people. (Grant Linton/CBC)

Social isolation an 'epidemic' 

One in three patients is dealing with chronic stress, chronic anxiety and depression, according to Dr. Shannon Cohane, who practises at the community health centre.

And it can be anyone, of any age, from seniors to new Canadians.

"This is an epidemic, especially in our city where we have lots of very poor individuals living alone. They don't have community, they don't have extended family around," she says. 

"It's critical to bring people together so they know they are not alone. It really helps their mental health."

Nurse practitioner Cristina Hermenegildo, left, and Dr. Shannon Cohane say they've had patients who only ever left their homes for medical appointments, now take part in social programs, making friends and building connections in the community. (Grant Linton/ CBC)

Nurse practitioner Cristina Hermenegildo says having social programming — almost all of it free — under the same roof at the clinic makes all the difference. She'll often walk patients over, and introduce them to class instructors and other participants.

"We are trying to prevent illness and not only treat it when it's a big problem." 

And the improvements are often obvious and long-lasting.

"Their mood is better," she says. "They feel they are connected to something, and it's that connection or feeling [that] improves their health."

Mousa says her stress has lessened so much that she stopped taking antidepressants. She now not only participates in programs, but also volunteers.

"You forget about your problems and the stress in your life — at least for two, three hours," she says.

"You are not thinking about your problems. You are here, you are taking care of yourself."

Mulligan says a final report on the social prescription pilot project is expected in March.

Hayfa Mousa says some of the programs offer TTC tokens, making it easier to take part. (Grant Linton/CBC)