Researchers at Edge Hill University have published the first study of its kind into the benefits of Rugby League Cares’s Offload programme and have concluded it is saving lives and providing those involved in the game a safe space for men to discuss mental health.
The research conducted by Professor Andy Smith, Dr David Haycock and Rachel Wilcock has been published in the international journal, Mental Health and Physical Activity, and is currently free to access online.
They concluded that Offload is an example of best practice for sport-based community mental health programmes for men, and much can be learned from how it has been designed and run.
Sport and Physical Activity Professor Andy Smith said: “There has been a rapid growth in community sport and mental health programmes for men, but the key design characteristics of these programmes, and the roles played by delivery staff in their conception and development, have not yet been systematically or widely studied. Our research on the Offload programme begins to rectify this.
“Among other things, our analysis showed that men clearly preferred a non-clinical approach to discussing their mental health, often in less stigmatising environments like professional sports stadia, and using sporting analogies to support self-care. Having the sessions led by former professional sports people working alongside mental health and community sport experts made it a safe space and allowed participants to express themselves fully. This, in turn, provided great outcomes for the men involved.”
At the heart of Offload was a desire by the sport’s independent charity Rugby League Cares to base the programme on men’s needs and preferences, supported by academic research and evidence from Edge Hill. This research informed the creation of effective weekly sessions that engaged and built trust with the participants, and shaped the monitoring and evaluation of Offload.
During the initial pilot phase, Offload was run by Rugby League Cares with support from State of Mind with the aim of addressing mental health problems by inviting men to talk and engage with current and former players at Salford Red Devils, Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings.
The research conducted by Edge Hill has since enabled Rugby League Cares to secure funding to expand Offload at other clubs all over the UK, and the research team will continue supporting the monitoring and evaluation of the programme.
In focus groups held as part of the wider evaluation, the participants were extremely positive with the amount of support and trust provided by the presenters and the relatability of their experience to those of men. The men also felt that Offload gave their lives structure, provided ownership over their mental health and prevented isolation by helping them to engage with others whether in-person or via social media.
One participant said: “I can honestly say Offload saved my life. That night that I went to Offload for the very first time, I was planning to do it [attempt to take my own life] again, so I can’t sing its praises enough to be honest. I wouldn’t be here without it.”
Another added: “Some of them [presenters] are people I’ve admired because I am a rugby league fan. When I’ve seen what they’ve been through, it made it easier for me to offload my problems in front of a few people, which I wouldn’t have done before.”
Rugby League Cares champions the mental health and the wider welfare of player, coaches, officials, everyone involved in rugby league. As partners, Edge Hill has worked with them to provide support and evaluation at every stage of the programme.
Emma Goldsmith, the Head of Community at Rugby League Cares said: “The power sport has to transform the lives of participants is well documented but the success we have seen in making transformational change to the quality of life of the men who have engaged in Offload is remarkable.
“Offload is enabling us to connect with an audience that health service providers have traditionally found difficult to reach: the feedback we receive from participants is consistently positive and uplifting, and it’s a privilege for everyone at RL Cares to know we’re making such a difference.
“We are really grateful to Edge Hill University for their important contribution to the success of Offload and are looking forward to working with Andy and his team as we take Offload to other parts of the Rugby League community.”
The Edge Hill team worked closely with Offload participants, Rugby League Cares staff, former rugby league players, officials and clinical mental health experts to conduct interviews and run focus groups across the three clubs.
An MSc in Sport, Physical Activity and Mental Health is available as a one-year full-time or two-year part-time course within the Department of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University. Placements working with Offload are available to students studying sport.