One in four of us will experience a mental health illness this year. In a rapidly changing world the one thing we appear not to have conquered is improving the nation’s mental health.
I grew up in a household over shadowed by the spectre of depression. In the 1970s and 80s it was very much a secret to be hidden, a ghost to be exorcised, a topic not open for discussion. There were many happy times but, in hindsight, society’s detrimental view of the illness made it a whole lot harder to deal with.
Decades have passed and admittedly there are more conversations on the subject, but we are still far from extinguishing the stigma that surrounds poor mental health.
“You're in a battle you can win"
A tweet some weeks back struck a chord; it was desperate and heart breaking in equal measure, admitting to the anonymous millions that frequent the online world that there was a problem. I was struck by the replies and how the football community gave support in their droves.
“Things are tough but not hopeless” said one “You're in a battle you can win and you have allies you didn't even know about.”
Our love of football can at times be visceral and fiercely territorial but when mental health is the problem our love of the beautiful game can be utilised to improve our psychological well being in so many ways.
"Football has helped me massively.... it has come to my rescue more than once"
Daniel Magner from the wonderful ground-hopping blog Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game concurs “The power of football for good is an astonishing one and one I can confirm from first hand experience, is very, very real. When I lost my Dad at the end of 2012, totally out of the blue, I was in a bad place.
I don't really come from a football family. I wasn't brought up with it, it was never on the TV, but when I discovered it during Euro 96 and completely fell in love with it, it quickly became something my Dad and I could bond over, and not long after that penalty miss at Wembley by Southgate, I was a season ticket holder at Spurs, and my dad was driving me to Bradford in a transit van to watch a 1 - 1 draw at Valley Parade.
In the blink of an eye, that person was gone, and it hit me hard. Fast forward two years on from his death, and I think I was still pretty lost, I was not coping very well with his death, and although I was working, and in a stable relationship, I was lacking a focus. So when in early 2015 Tom, the other half of Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game, and I began our blog I found that writing, and going to matches, gave me that. It gave me both the focus and drive that I had been so severely lacking, which overlapped into everyday life and allowed me that simple pleasure, that so many people are not allowed; the time to unwind and shed some of the strain and stress of life for a while, that may have been starting to overwhelm me.
Five years on, and along with the help of my family, I genuinely think football has helped me massively, and over the last half a decade, it has come to my rescue more than once. Picking me up, when I had for one reason or another hit a low point.”
"I was feeling sorry for myself, I wanted to change that and the one thing that could do that was football. It is a very special sport."
When footballers open up about their mental health is can do great things to initiate the conversation. Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp broke down when he talked about his struggles following the death of his son Luey “I got through it and was football that got me through it and obviously the people around me”
The Football Association also believes that football can facilitate change “Sport can help in people’s recovery, help to mange symptoms and can radically improve the quality of people’s lives”
This can come both through the benefits of physical exercise and through the social inclusion that being part of a community gives you.
Mental Health Football is an award winning initiative inviting users to play football for an hour every Friday night, without need for a referral or a sign up. No scores, no expectations to be any good, no judgements; you just turn up and play Futsal for fun.
Andy Steel from the organisation explained that although there is no requirement to talk, “at every session there is a Mental Health First Aider, just in case in case.”
1874 Northwich in Cheshire are a football club making great strides to remove the stigma attached mental health issues. For many months now they have offered those suffering from depression, anxiety and social isolation free entry to they’re home games, no questions asked.
“As the cold, dark months arrive, we can offer a warm drink and friendly face. We acknowledge the football won’t act as a curable treatment but we have developed relationships with local charities & community groups who can offer support and guidance for anyone who is suffering”
Another team offering a haven through football is Kick the Stigma who have recently started running weekly ‘Football Therapy’ sessions in West Lothian to help people connect with each other without judgement and simply play football.
Back Onside www.backonside.co.uk is a Scottish charity aiming to endorse the preservation of mental health through peer support. One of their ambassadors, Callum McFadden who produces the excellent Football CFB podcast, explains that his role is to share his story and engage with those who are struggling and football can help with this.
He describes his own issues with anxiety as “the toughest battle of my life” but says that that seeking support was the “best thing I have ever done”
"My mum, my girlfriend and football really have kept me going"
There is anecdotal evidence in abundance to say that such initiatives are helpful but the research also suggests that harnessing the power of football to give mental health care has shown many benefits over the years; One of these, the It’s a Goal! (IAG) programme, was developed by a psychiatric nurse who could see that the clinical language and the thought of a formal mental health setting was preventing men from accessing the help they needed.
It took referrals from GPs and others to try and engage participants in cognitive-behavioural style techniques, but using the language of football to make the mental health support more accessible.
One participant talked about how players were used to address their own personal characteristics “The attributes of different players, strikers having confidence, midfielders needing to hold things together and all that, provided a good way of looking at my own issues”
In 2015 McKeown, Roy, and Spandler evaluated how 7 of these programmes were working by interviewing both the participants and their coaches. What shone through was how the project helped them feel connected again.
“The big thing was becoming a team and rooting for each other, helping each other out"
"We have become a team ourselves and are bouncing off each other and supporting each other like if one player isn’t doing so well we can support them”
They researchers found that being part of the programme gave the members a sense of togetherness and connection that they hadn’t previously felt.
“You can be quite isolated I think with things like depression and so on. You start to kind of withdraw from society really .. it builds your confidence just being with other people but its more than that ... it is that experience of saying “you’re not the only one”
Improving feelings of isolation that many of the group had been feeling, gave many of them new focus. Some had lost interest in football and the project helped re-ignite this, some started playing the game together or going to matches again. For many they used football, such as texting about the latest results, as a way of staying in contact.
"You’re not the only one”
Peter Hill’s Place 2 Place FC offers the same; exercise, a distraction, conversation and community. All through the medium of football. Hill, set up a 5-aside team following the suicide of three friends’ in close succession.
“It’s not ‘Let’s all talk about feelings’,” he says. “At the time you’re talking about tactics from the last hour. But it’s surprising how many lads become isolated. We try to fix that.”
The football club, in Wigan, which has grown dramatically since it’s early days in 2016, offers a sporting outlet for those facing challenging times and a way to raise awareness of men’s mental health services.
Similarly MH United are promoting positive mental health through football. “For some, football is their outlet and without that they can struggle. If you are struggling, reach out, your mates are there for you”
Their work, and that of many others, is backed up by psychological research from the Mental Health Foundation which found that, compared with medication and therapy, exercise could be just as effective at easing the symptoms of depression.
In such unprecedented times we all need to look out for each other and do more to improve both our own and others’ mental health.
The Time To Change organisation is urging everyone to ‘Ask Twice’. If you feel that you friend or loved one is acting differently treat their ‘I’m fine’ with caution and ask again. Your interest and willingness to talk and listen could make all the difference to their outcomes.
If you need support with your mental health right now, or would like to know where to signpost others, there are some great organisation to reach out to.
The Mental Health Foundation also offer FREE tips on good mental health; just text TIPS to 70300
Shout can be there for you in a crisis. It is a 24-hour a day 7 day a week texting help line. Since they launched in May 2019, they have taken over 250,000 text conversations with people who are feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed and in need of support.
If you text SHOUT to 85258 you will get free confidential support from one of their trained crisis volunteers
You can call the Samaritans on 116123, Mind on 0300 123 3393 or CALM on 0800 585 858
Please don’t suffer in silence – It’s time to talk
McKeown, M, Roy, A.N and Spandler, H (2015) You’ll never walk alone: supportive social relations in a football and mental health project. International Journal Of Mental Health Nursing
Data regarding the number of Shout text conversations gained from @GiveUsAShout