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A programme combining emoji bingo and sport to tackle children’s mental health across Merseyside, last night (Thursday 24 November) won a prestigious award.

Tackling the Blues (TtB), an early intervention programme for children in Merseyside’s most disadvantaged areas has been recognised for its Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community’ at the Times Higher Education Awards.

The programme, launched by Edge Hill University in partnership with Everton in the Community, the official charity of Everton Football Club, uses sport and education to help children aged six to 16-years-old with, or at risk of mental health issues.

Emoji bingo, peer mentoring and physical activities are used to increase self-esteem and reduce anxiety in children whilst helping them build positive relationships with peers and external agencies.

The award judges said the programme “has been selected as a national case exemplar” and has “in the view of educational and health professionals, made a positive contribution in this challenging area.”

They also said it was “remarkable” that more than 95% of participants have continued with the programme over 15 months.

Andy Smith, Professor of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University, said:

“We’re delighted that over two years’ research-led work, supported by our students and longstanding partnership with Everton in the Community, has been recognised for its impact on and contribution to our local communities, especially children and young people with mental illness.

“Tackling the Blues is a strong partnership which has been recognised by our peers as demonstrating just what impact can be achieved if universities like Edge Hill, together with other educational institutions and the sport and health sector, work collaboratively to address issues which are of international concern.”

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Andy and his colleague Jonathan Jones collected their award at the ceremony in London, beating strong competition from universities across England and Wales.

Andy said:

“We launched TtB in response to the very significant mental health problems facing young people. Eight in ten are not accessing mental health services, others have to wait nine months to access support.

“Inequality and deprivation are high in the North West and TtB operates in areas ranked amongst the 85% most disadvantaged areas of the country. Our early intervention programme tackles a variety of mental illness from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and anger-management. Without TtB many young people would just slip through the net.”

Volunteer students from Edge Hill’s Department of Sport and Physical Activity and Faculty of Education are trained in internationally accredited mental health qualifications to deliver weekly sessions in schools, acting as mentors to the young people.

Jon Jones, Edge Hill Project Lead for TtB, said:

“Operating across nine secondary schools and two young carer groups, the sessions mix sport and physical activity with educational workshops on topics such as stigma, bullying and emotions where ‘emoji bingo’ is used to encourage children to talk about their feelings. Delivering activities that children can relate to has allowed us to start informal discussions around mental health whilst maintaining their engagement and enjoyment.”

Conor, 13, a pupil at Hillside High School in Bootle, said:

“TtB helps me with my feelings and doing sport. If I felt down or upset or was angry in other lessons I knew I could talk about it and I don’t really get angry anymore.”

Fellow pupil, Nathan, 13, said:

“TtB teaches you how mental health affects people and how you can overcome it. Sometimes I felt upset but I spoke to people in school and my parents. Now if I feel angry I walk away from it. I’m also helping the Year 7s teaching them about mental health.”

Chrissie Doran, Progress Leader for Years 7 and 8 at Hillside High School, added:

“TtB is really helping. We’ve see our students learn new skills, make new friends and they access support from different types of people making them feel more confident and better about themselves. Students on TtB are more likely to come to school, take part in school life and are generally more engaged and communicative.”

The volunteers are assisted by mentors and coaches from Everton’s official charity to maximise the impact of the brand of the Club which has helped recruit and retain 95% of young people over the last 15 months.

Michael Salla, Director of Health and Sport at Everton in the Community, said:

“TtB is part of our wider work in the community promoting health and wellbeing. One of the key areas is mental health and we’ve found football is a highly effective engagement tool to reach people who wouldn’t normally engage. Once they’re involved in a programme we can start a conversation with them, help tackle the stigma and work alongside partners such as the NHS and other agencies where appropriate.”

Charles Knight, a Senior Lecturer in Business and Management at Edge Hill University was shortlisted in the Most Innovative Teacher of the Year category.