World mental health day 2020: The story behind one of London’s fastest growing mental health programmes

This Saturday 10 October marks World Mental Health Day. A day for raising awareness of the importance of mental health and for encouraging others to open up about their own experiences, to talk and to listen.

Here at the Football Foundation, we know the huge role physical activity has to play in helping people with mental health problems manage their symptoms and improve their overall quality of life. Since we were established in 2000, our facilities have been used by hundreds of fantastic projects harnessing the power of football to help those with mental health problems.

One of these projects can be found in Camden, North London, and is run by outreach support worker, Robert, through a local mental health trust. He spoke to us ahead of World Mental Health Day to explain how the programme started and describe the impact it’s had so far.

World Mental Health Day 2020
World Mental Health Day 2020

Fourteen years ago, whilst working for a mental health trust, Robert discovered that hard to reach service users weren’t using the mainstream mental health services that were set up at the time and decided to try and use football as a common ground for people to meet on.

'It started with a handful of people in a park and escalated from there. The trust that I was working for recognised it was a way of engaging individuals that they were struggling to reach. They decided to promote the programme across the trust and open it up to all different services within the secondary sector.'

The premise of the programme was simple: try and use football as a way of helping people tackle the main aspects of their life that have been impacted due to, what is quite often, severe and enduring mental health problems.

‘If you imagine you’re suffering from a mental health problem that’s excruciating and you have nothing else to satisfy yourself with, people tend to turn to instant gratifications - so it might be drugs or alcohol, or takeaway food. 

‘As a consequence of these types of lifestyle choice, seriously heavy medications and social isolation, individuals tend to lose networks and contact with family and friends and their physical health is compromised.’

But for many new to Robert’s programme, they quickly discovered what he already knew – that football could be the catalyst to helping them to recognise the need for a change. 

‘Football brings people out. For many, this programme gives them access to something they used to love and could possibly learn to love again. For most, who perhaps haven’t been off the couch in the last 20 years, they quickly recognise how unfit they are and make a choice – they either say I’m never coming back again or they say I want to change and open the door to it’ 

For this programme, it was certainly that latter and after moving from the local park to the Football Foundation-funded facilities at Market Road, the group were offered support by a Premier League club who had seen the fantastic work that was going on. Armed with a state-of-the-art facility, professional coach and the support of the community, the group naturally began to grow and for the users, the results of regular engagement with the programme were proving to be life-changing. 

‘By helping individuals feel better about themselves you develop confidence and self-esteem in them that transcends their ability on the pitch. What we look at in terms of recovery is that the person can get their life back again without having to be identified as a mental health service user. 

‘Over the years we’ve had people who have gone on to their FA Level 1 + 2 coaching qualifications, their lifeguard qualifications or apprenticeships. We’ve had some that have gone on to work in catering, get jobs with the professional team that we work with and even a few that have become health care professionals – it’s amazing to see.’

Though the success of the programme so far should in no doubt be attributed mainly to Robert’s endless hours of hard work and dedication, he recognises the important role of other factors in the group's growth – namely, the state-of-the-art facility the programme is based from. 

‘It’s so important to have a facility that’s well equipped, capable of facilitating everyone in the group and provides a safe environment for them to enjoy their session in. The artificial surface is also really important as it’s always in perfect condition and helps the players have the best session they can have. 

If you have the best facilities you’re breaking down some of the barriers that stop people joining groups like this, so people join and enjoy coming. Once they enjoy coming, feel supported and safe, they’ll come back – so it’s really important in that aspect.’ 

You may think after 14 years of running the programme and seeing the success stories, the desire for Robert to expand further would be gone. But for him, it’s just the beginning. 

‘We started off with 12 people in a park and now we’re at a fantastic facility getting on average 35 people for both of the sessions we now run each week. And it will continue to grow. 

‘In the future, we want to give people the opportunity to travel more, play against different teams across the country and possibly introduce new sports such as tennis or running. We might even see it advance further and be an option for primary care services. 

‘Over the last few months during lockdown people have found themselves isolated, not able to connect and communicate, which leads to mental health problems. When someone visits their GP in the future and says they are suffering from depression or anxiety – something like football could help. It’s so important we start recognising this.’ 

Facts about mental health:

  • One in four people will experience a mental health problem in a year
  • One in six will report experiencing a common mental health problem like anxiety and depression
  • Over 10% population have depression at any one time
  • More than half of adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown. 

People with mental health problems are statistically:

  • More likely to be obese
  • Have 2-4 times greater risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Have 2-4 times greater risk of diabetes
  • Life expectancy of someone with schizophrenia is typically ten years less – due to physical health problems