5-A-Side and Mental Illness

A laugh with your mates? 5-a-side can be so much more

We all know playing football is a good way to get physically fit. That’s a given. More than that, football can work wonders for the mind.

This week marks the start of Mental Illness Awareness Week. In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s never been more important to take care of our mental health. Increased social isolation, loneliness and anxiety around the future has had a significant impact on mental wellbeing, and for those already suffering from mental illness, it can be overwhelming.

New research has suggested that a regular kick about can lead to improved mental health, social confidence and a sense of purpose. In the current climate, it’s safe to say it’s worth a try. Exploring the impact of the beautiful game on people with mental health challenges, many of the players in the study said that weekly games improved stress and anxiety levels. One commented:

“I think when you have the adrenalin pumping it kind of flushes out any kind of negative emotions and stuff you have, almost like you kind of sweat it out.”

Other benefits included social connections, which can be an area of difficulty for those suffering from mental illness. Football provides common ground for players. One player said: “You talk about what has happened on the pitch. That’s the ice breaker. I think that is where people gain their confidence to then to talk to new people.”

Another powerful element was the way in which becoming part of a team, sharing a pitch and a spirit helped to normalise their feelings and allowed them to build connections. The players in the study were young men, for whom mental health problems are rife. Suicide, for example, has been the leading cause of death for men aged under 34 in the UK since 2001. A kick about with pals won’t be the solution, but can offer short term relief with long term benefits. Just 90-120 minutes of football per week was enough to drastically improve the symptoms of mental illness.

This isn’t the first-time mental health benefits from physical activity have been highlighted. One review showed that physical activity improved depressive symptoms, with results close to the use of medication. It’s no surprise that there are more and more community led initiatives aiming to support those suffering with mental illness with the beautiful game.

Imagine Your Goals is a community-based football programme run by Everton FC in the Community.  They use football as a device for participants to tackle mental health issues, providing a tangible support network and combating loneliness and social isolation. Dave McCormack had been working with the programme for six weeks before taking part in the National Mental Health Championships at Goals Liverpool South.

“I had a mental health breakdown in March and was taking cocaine seven days a week, along with alcohol. I was given a place in rehab in Runcorn and was there six months. I left six weeks ago and here I am now. It is the camaraderie which helps, if I lost a game of football in the past it would ruin my day but now, I can laugh it off because I am with people who understand me and my illness and don't judge me. I had to drag myself here this morning because my mental health has been quite bad in the past week... but I knew I would feel even worse if I did not come”.

With approximately one-quarter of the adult population currently experiencing mental health difficulties in some form, 5-a-side football could be a low cost, easily accessible and effective mechanism for improving mental health in our communities.