Alive and Kicking for mental health

  • Today is World Mental Health Day

  • Alive and Kicking uses football to tackle mental health

  • CEO Ben Sadler believes football to be an "ideal tool"

Like many parts of the world, people of all ages across sub-Saharan Africa are struggling with their mental health. Mental health based issues account for 10 per cent of the total burden of disease across the region and they are often linked to other health conditions such as malaria and HIV.

The good news is that there are a number of individuals and organisations that are taking action to address poor mental health, one of which is Alive and Kicking. A not-for-profit charity, it has provided over one million footballs and used them to educate children in Zambia, Kenya and Ghana since 2004.

“There is a stigma attached to mental health, and nobody was really doing anything to help,” Ben Sadler, Alive and Kicking’s CEO told

“We were already making the footballs. By doing so, we’re able to create full-time work for people from vulnerable job groups. So, for example, in Zambia, all of our staff haven’t had any formal work before. Forty per cent have disabilities.

“Then the money we make through ball sales and fundraising – the FIFA Foundation is an example – we use it to deliver balls to key groups and health education programmes, which is where the mental health programme comes in. All our mental health programmes are delivered through football coaching.

“Playing sport is the premium way of improving our mental health. We deliver a curriculum of football drills which, within them, deliver mental heath messages directly through play.

“When a coach takes a session they begin with a football, there’s no mention of health. They’ll then stop the session and introduce the health message – they’ll explain, ‘This represents this, this represents that’.

"Then, crucially, they’ll start playing again, with the kids now playing with the mental health message in their heads. This reinforces the learning.”

The results have been incredible.

“In terms of knowledge, we find that people who attend this programme will improve their knowledge by an average of 72 per cent,” Sadler said. “Those are things like knowing the signs of poor mental health, where to seek support if they need it, ways of improving your mental health.

“What’s most exciting for us is the behaviour impact. People are three times more likely to seek support, or support someone else, with their mental health once they’ve been on the programme. People are genuinely changing the way they work, live.

“We’re not claiming to treat mental health. We’re educators, we’re challenging the stigma, we’re able to signpost people to local support networks if they need that professional support.”

Today is World Mental Health Day, and Alive and Kicking believe football is a source of help to people all across the globe.

“Regular exercise and sport, it’s a fantastic and proven way of improving your emotional and mental health,” Sadler said.

“There are a lot of elements in football – exercise, working as a team, communication – that support mental health. Football is an ideal tool.”