24/03/2015 05:59 GMT | Updated 23/05/2015 06:59 BST

Relationships Must Be Put at the Heart of the NHS

Long term health conditions such as dementia, cancer and depression affect 15 million of us in the UK today, making up the bulk of increasing demand on the NHS. With our most cherished institution struggling to meet the costs, it is clear we need to find new and different ways of preventing and managing ill health.

A growing body of evidence suggests that relationships with friends, family and partners may hold some of the answers. For example, those of us with strong relationships are 50% more likely to survive life-threatening illness than people with weaker ones. Good quality couple, family and social relationships can prevent, delay or minimise the effects of health conditions, but can also come under strain just when we need them most. It really makes no sense for the NHS to leave them out of the picture but, unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening currently both in policy and practice.

It is because relationships are too often ignored or overlooked in the NHS that Relate has partnered with think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC ) to review the evidence and produce policy recommendations for national and local government and health policy makers to address the issue. Released today to mark the launch of Relate's new 'The Best Medicine' campaign, our joint report brings together the evidence showing that relationships are good for health, and calls for relationships to be put at the heart of the NHS.

The report finds that, despite recognition of social factors in recent policy papers such as the 2012 Health and Social Care Act and 2010 Marmot Review, the specific role of relationships is given little attention in the health system. Couple and family relationships are also not incorporated into NHS Outcomes Frameworks or NICE guidelines.

On a practical level, YouGov polling released today by Relate shows that only half (51%) of people with a life-limiting health problem or who are disabled and have received professional support say it has taken their relationships into account effectively. It also found that relationships are being put under strain as a result of health conditions: around 1 in 4 people with a life-limiting health problem or who are disabled said their condition has impacted negatively on relationships they have or have had with partners (24%), friends (25%), family (23%) or colleagues (33%).

Many of Relate's national network of counsellors work with people with physical and mental health conditions everyday. In the counselling room, the significant interplay between relationships and health is clear.

As part of the campaign, we have been in touch with Martin Wells, who came to Relate Manchester for relationship support after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Martin was feeling irritable and arguing with his partner and family. After attending relationship support and sex therapy sessions with our counsellors, Martin says he has overcome many of his issues and embarked on a new relationship.

Like a staggering 91% of people living with long term conditions in our YouGov poll, Martin was not aware that support of this kind was available to him. He said it wasn't until it was offered to him that he even realised he would benefit, which is why it is important that professionals know where to signpost people to.

We are also campaigning alongside Joanie Scott, whose daughter, Sarah had a stroke aged just 18. Sarah was given support in the form of speech therapy but she received nothing when it came to relationships. Joanie thinks this would have helped the whole family and is backing our campaign to ensure other people in similar situations are offered more support.

Relate is calling for a Government inquiry into how the true value of relationships can be recognised in the NHS. We also want the Health Secretary to become the Health and Wellbeing Secretary, with relationships and quality of life for carers and people with health and care needs explicitly in his team's remit, and the introduction of a 'Family Test' for local health policy makers.

Please get involved in this important campaign - sign our petition today to help make excellent relationship support more accessible at the point of diagnosis and beyond. We've got the opportunity to improve millions of lives here, as well as our society as a whole.