Tackling Mental Health in Northern Ireland – Can Football Help?

Mental health is one of the biggest and most important issues in Northern Ireland at the moment, and in recent times we have seen this issue continue to grow.  Unfortunately, Northern Ireland has some of the highest rates of mental illness along with the highest suicide rates in the UK.  To highlight this problem further, it was found in recent research that the rates of mental health problems in Northern Ireland are higher than any other region in the UK; and at least 25% higher than in England, as one in five adults in Northern Ireland have a mental health issue at any one time. It was also found that at least 19% of people over the age of 18 in Northern Ireland have struggled with mental health issues. These statistics show no sign of declining either, with reports from the Quality Outcome Framework disease registers for mental health and depression showing a gradual increase in the prevalence rate per 1,000 people since 2013/14.

There are many different factors that contribute to Northern Ireland having such high numbers of mental health issues.  One of these factors that can lead to possible difficulties with mental health is adverse childhood experiences, these are traumatic events that occur in a young person’s life before the age of 18.  It was found in the Youth Wellbeing Survey in 2020 that close to one in two young people aged 11-19 years (47.5%) have experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience.

A second factor which relates to mental health in Northern Ireland specifically, is the legacy of the conflict in the country, and its resulting high levels of deprivation, and significant loss of life.  Research by the Commission for Victims and Survivors estimates that over 200,000 adults in Northern Ireland have experienced mental ill health as a result of the previous conflict in the country – many of whom will now be parents.

It’s clear to see how big of an issue mental health is in the country, and the question many people are now asking is, ‘how can mental health be improved?’  This article will investigate one way in which we can answer this question, football!  Of course, football is great for physical fitness, but also it can be extremely beneficial to your mental health, and in many different ways.  Throughout this article three different angles are going to be explored, the first being the view from a fantastic mental health charity, TAMHI (Tackling Awareness of Mental Health Issues) whose aim it is to assist people struggling with mental health through sport.

TAMHI was set up back in 2011 by Joe Donnelly and Stephen McLaughlin in memory of Thomas “Tammy Tucker” McLaughlin, who sadly took his own life in 2009.  The charity was set up to use sport in order to promote positive mental fitness.  They have been working with many different sports clubs throughout their time and have been holding various footballing events such as charity matches and tournaments across the country to get their message sent out.

Joe Donnelly reflected on the work that he and his team have been doing throughout the local community, and how he has incorporated football into a way of improving mental health and encouraging people to speak out when they’re struggling.  They offer a phased approach to mental health, alongside encouraging the setup of wellbeing committees at football clubs, that players and staff can use to seek support.  “Over the years, we’ve had football clubs who are really started to embrace our ideas.  In football, we have a pathway.  The first phase is awareness, regardless of how big or small the club is, they can post on social media, or they can dedicate a football match to mental health.  At the moment, we are working on having matches across Northern Ireland dedicated to mental health campaigns.  It’s something that every football club can do, and through that someone can connect, and can get help if they need it.” 

The second phase is centred around training, through this TAMHI provides mental health workshops for football coaches as well as coaches and players from other sports, Joe also explained one of their campaigns, called Mental Wealth Games.  This promotes social and emotional learning through play.  “Mental Wealth Games teaches football drills that promote wellbeing, we have been delivering these for years to simply promote the idea of good mental health to kids without bringing them into a classroom, but instead bring them out onto a pitch and have them do a football drill, that has a mental health message behind it.  It teaches football skills as well as positive mental health.”

These initiatives have been incredibly successful for TAMHI, as they received positive feedback from their training course.  86% of those who took part learnt key wellbeing messages and felt good after taking part, and 79% of those said that they had more confidence to ask for help.

Work like this from charities such as TAMHI cannot go overlooked when it comes to mental health.  These charities play such a vital role in promoting awareness of these issues and they help to give people the confidence they need to feel that they can speak to someone or ask for help.  The training provided is also incredibly important as it encourages more people to get involved and play a part in helping out with mental health problems.

Another interesting perspective to be explored through this article is that of a local football fan, Niall Quinn, also known through his Youtube channel, Peaky Bannsiders. 

Going to watch a favourite football team every weekend is something that many people across the country do, but Niall takes a different approach, as he has started to vlog his experiences on Youtube as he follows local Northern Irish Premiership games all over the country.  Niall started this adventure along with his son Oisin to make memories as they followed their team, Coleraine FC.  However, the vlogs have since become a great watch for fans of the local game, as the Peaky Bannsiders channel has racked up over 230,000 views!  So, how can simply going to watch the football be good for your mental health? Niall explained how it makes him feel as a fan, “It (football) is bringing people together, it’s even bringing different religions together too, which we wouldn’t have seen ten years ago.”

“From my personal view, going to football games helps me to relieve any sort of stress and anxiety that I have, because I enjoy it, and now that I’m doing the videos, I’m learning to look at things differently.  From a mental health view, it just relieves the stress that builds up through work.  I wouldn’t like to think about how I’d be feeling as a person if we didn’t have the football to go to every week, it’s a real release valve.”

This interview with Niall really highlights how much of an impact football can have on an individual, it may just be going to watch a game, but it can really help to alleviate stress or any difficulties that a person has been going through.  Furthermore, looking back on the restrictions and lockdowns that were in place during the COVID pandemic, getting back to the football stadiums, meeting up with friends and family can have a truly positive impact.  In fact, research has found that watching football helps patients with dementia, anxiety, and depression.

The final aspect that this article will explore is the perspective of a footballer, and how they feel that the local game can impact mental health.  Mark Surgenor is a Northern Irish Premiership player, currently playing for Carrick Rangers FC.  Mark has a wealth of knowledge and experience within the local game and has seen first-hand the impacts of mental health in the sport, and how football can benefit this.  In the short interview below, Mark gives his thoughts on the topic.  He explains the way in which players can be affected by mental health throughout their career from his own experiences, with the loss of friend and teammate Jerry Thompson, and the support mechanisms that have been set up to support them.

The interview with Mark is available here;

These three different perspectives show that local football has a huge impact on mental health, and in different ways.  Through the eyes of the fans who travel week in week out to watch their teams, and players who train and play throughout the season, it is vital that mental health issues are promoted within the sport.  We can also see the positive impact that football can have within our local communities, as it can provide an activity to relieve stress, get more active, or simply just enjoy with friends.  Charities such as TAMHI also play their part in making a safe environment through football for people of all ages to feel comfortable, learn and talk about the issues they may be dealing with. 

Although mental health will always be a tough issue to improve throughout society, it’s clear that football in Northern Ireland across all levels is taking a step in the right direction and is certainly offering one area of support.

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