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Community groups provide ‘lifeline’ for vulnerable residents new research shows

Report looks at the role community assets can play in preventing poor health

Date issued: 23 July 2020

A ‘lifeline’ is how vulnerable people view community-based groups set up to support them – new research funded by the North Essex Health and Wellbeing Alliance (the Alliance) has shown.

Undertaken by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), the study concluded community assets such as support groups or clubs play a key role in improving people’s wellbeing, especially around tackling isolation, improving self-confidence, and also mental and physical health.

The report, entitled Overcoming Barriers to Health and Wellbeing: Community Assets in North East Essex, was commissioned by the Alliance to further understand the reality of people’s experience in light of often poor health statistics in both Colchester and Tendring – including high rates of self-harm and suicide, alcohol specific hospital stays, violent crime, and social isolation.

The research was designed to help establish a clear evidence base on the role community assets can play in preventing poor health and to inform their continued development across North Essex. To understand this, people from three organisations in Colchester and three in Tendring were interviewed to understand the impact they were making to their lives.

These groups were found to offer support to a range of vulnerable people including military veterans potentially at risk of offending, parents, older people, teenagers, those living with and caring for people with dementia and people with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

The research found that the organisations helped forge a sense of identity and belonging among users – with many describing them as a lifeline.

The report outlines several recommendations for further supporting the development of community assets including:

  • identifying and promoting community assets across Colchester and Tendring
  • providing small grants to community assets, particularly to support those in areas of social and economic deprivation
  • supporting the establishment of community assets in places where few if any exist – but ensuring they are not created as mini versions of statutory services or set up to take their place
  • encouraging the use of community assets through ‘social prescribing’ by GPs and other health care workers to help enhance people’s quality of life
  • developing free training to help people lead and volunteer at community assets

The findings and recommendations will help the councils, the Alliance and other partners develop the support needed by vulnerable communities and is particularly relevant as the councils and the Alliance look to help communities recover from the impacts of Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown.

Chairman of the Alliance, Mark Jarman-Howe, said: “The commissioning of this research reflects the commitment of the North East Essex Health and Wellbeing Alliance to tackling inequity through addressing the wider determinants of health, and building our understanding of and engagement with the rich store of community assets to be found in even the most deprived areas.

The findings will help shape our priorities over the coming years and will have wider resonance and benefit to other areas of the country as well.”

The report’s lead author, Dr Oonagh Corrigan of the ARU, said: "While these groups were all set up ostensibly for a purpose, for example a bowls club or a school uniform exchange club, we found that these purposes were often of secondary importance to the users.

“The social aspect was an overwhelming benefit, allowing users to build relationships with like-minded people and feel a sense of belonging."

Colchester Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Communities, Wellbeing and Public Safety, Cllr Mike Lilley, said: “We are committed to supporting all of our residents. However, we had major concerns about some of the health and wellbeing statistics for our area and we needed to get to the bottom of as to why and what we could do change them.

“The report confirms to me that further supporting community assets is the right approach - however, there is still much more we can do to further enhance what is on offer for those in our communities who obviously need and benefit from them. It provides a lot of food for thought.”

Cllr Lynda McWilliams, Tendring District Council’s Cabinet Member for Partnerships, added: “It is important we offer support for individuals from across the board.

“We need to work together; the health service, local authorities and voluntary groups, to help people – our residents – in the best way we can, and this research is a valuable tool to help us achieve this.”

A copy of the report is available at: https://www.aru.ac.uk/research/ageing

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