Awareness and understanding of mental health issues is increasing
Football is beginning to play a role in helping those suffering
One Scottish club is leading the way with an award-winning programme
Last May, Stenhousemuir’s Mental Health Group were guests at the Scottish Cup final. Leigh Griffiths was part of the triumphant Celtic squad at Hampden Park that day, and left the field clutching the 13th winner’s medal of his glittering career.
Just a few months later, it was announced that Griffiths – the Scotland national team’s leading striker – would be taking time out of football due to mental health issues of his own. It was a timely reminder, were any needed, that such problems can impact anyone, regardless of their status.
The scale of the challenge is enormous; in Scotland alone, the government estimate that, in any given year, one person in three suffers from some form of mental illness. But football is one of the tools now being used to fight back, and Stenhousemuir – a low-profile club playing in Scotland’s third tier – have been at the forefront of that battle.
FIFA.com travelled to see Stenny’s award-winning Warriors in the Community Mental Health Football Programme in action, and heard tales of an unqualified success story.
As Julie Cunnell, an occupational therapist in mental health with NHS Forth Valley, told us: “We carry out assessments on a regular basis, and, everyone involved in the football programme – without a single exception – has reported an improvement in their mood and a decrease in their levels of anxiety. Some of the people you’ll see here weren’t able to leave the house, and now you’ll see them travelling around the country for tournaments - and loving it."
As well as providing kits, club coaches to lead the sessions and the use of their Ochilview Stadium, Stenhousemuir jointly fund this pioneering initiative.
“The club has been brilliant,” said John McGowan, a project worker with Caledonia Service, who first set up the programme five years ago with Falkirk Council and NHS Forth Valley. “They kept the group going for close to a year when we didn’t have any funding, and they went through a relegation at that time, so the fact they still found the money is a real tribute to them.
“The great thing about this group is that it caters for people at all stages of their recoveries. And while we offer lots of different groups, football seems particularly good for getting people engaged. The benefits are threefold really: it improves their mental health, physical health and social interaction. And you can literally see the difference in them – whether that’s their physical appearance or just their general mood.”
The programme’s transformational power was certainly borne out when we heard from two of its beneficiaries – Robert Cochrane and Christopher Horne – about how their lives have changed for the better.
"Before coming here, I suffered really badly with depression and had no self-worth. Some people think you should just be able to snap out of it but it’s not that easy, and it’s a horrible way to live. I got as low as you can possibly imagine. But I’ve been part of the football programme for two-and-a-half years and it’s been brilliant for me. It gives me something to look forward to every Friday, relieves any stress that might be building up and gets me feeling good again.
"It has made a massive difference to my life. I’ve made a lot of friends here and mix with people better now, whereas I used to just sit in the house myself. I lost loads of weight too, which I needed to – four stone in the first year. My family are proud of me as well, and it’s nice to be able to come back and tell them about the games and show off the trophies and medals we win. I’m just a lot happier in myself now."
"I’ve been coming for a year and it has been great. It’s a very happy group – every time you come there are people welcoming you, shaking your hand and asking how you’ve been doing. And I’ve always loved football anyway. I don’t actually know whether it’s the social side of things or the football itself that’s the best thing, but you can't beat it.
"It’s been good for my self-confidence too because we’ve won a couple of leagues and been away to different cities around the country for matches, winning trophies too. I suffer from schizophrenia but it’s helped my mental health massively and I’m so glad I got involved. If I didn’t have football, I don’t know what kind of state I’d be in. A bad one, definitely. It's made a huge difference to my life."