Changing the conversation about health

Beyond Pills Campaign: The UK football clubs using the power of sport to help fans with mental health problems

If ever the phrase ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts’ was applicable, then it’s in the growing arena of football teams for mental health.

In the last decade, new clubs dedicated to helping those who love the beautiful game and have mental health problems have sprung up across the UK, as an increasing bank of evidence highlights the power of sport to help people with depression and anxiety.

The highest risk of death by suicide is amongst men who are aged 35 to 50, living alone and unemployed, and the Football Association (FA) has been vocal in its support of how the game can help with social inclusion, and improving both mental and physical health.

Recent research suggests that exercise intervention – ie sport – can be just as effective as anti-depressants for people with non-severe depression (Image: Pixabay/Tomas_workman0)

A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that looked at how exercise compared with antidepressants (and including a combination of both) in treating non-severe depression found there was no difference ‘in treatment effectiveness between exercise, antidepressants and their combination’.

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Indeed, researchers at The University of Hong Kong who carried out the study concluded their findings ‘supported the use of exercise interventions as an alternative treatment option for non-severe depression’.

How can you get involved? In England’s north west, Liverpool Football Therapy offers training and matches for all genders enduring mental health problems, and a GP’s referral isn’t needed. The club has faced funding problems in recent months and session times have been reduced to keep costs down.

Minds United, an inclusive London-based team with male and female teams was founded in 2019 and has gone from strength to strength during the last three years.

Sessions take place on astroturf pitches in West London with FA qualified coaches. In 2022, teams from the club travelled to the Czech Republic and Italy to play in tournaments.

In Norfolk, Football Development Officer Jamie Bennett runs hour-long mental health football sessions for female players.

Bennett says: ‘Mental health is an issue at the forefront of society at current and football can be a great source of relief.

‘Football can create the perfect environment for people to share their feelings and have those meaningful conversations, essential to bettering our mental health.’

The ‘social kickabout’ sessions take place with a qualified FA coach, and there’s a chance to chat and have a drink afterwards. (Click here to find out more).