Saving lives through sport

Andy Smith – Professor of Sport and Physical Activity

Mental health issues in children and young people are on the rise. Common problems, such as depression and anxiety, are increasing amongst 16-24 year olds, while one in six school aged children in 2020 struggled with their mental health. Add to that the fact that children from the poorest 20 per cent of households are four times as likely to have serious mental health difficulties by the age of 11 as those from the wealthiest 20 per cent, and the need for targeted support and intervention is clear.*

Professor Andy Smith has been working with sport, health and educational organisations for over eight years on ways to improve mental health through sport. His research has focused on children and young people from some of the most disadvantaged areas in the North West, as well as working class men, a traditionally hard to reach group who are at disproportionate risk of mental health problems and suicide. This work has informed government policy on sport and mental health and suicide prevention, changed the policies of leading sports and mental health organisations, raised awareness of mental health in schools and community groups and improved the lives of thousands of people across the region and beyond.

“Our aim is always to work with the communities in our region, which has some of the most deprived areas in the UK, to address the challenges they face. Through our partnerships, we’re able to bring national insights and make sure they are locally relevant, while also feeding our local knowledge back into the national policy landscape to make sure everyone’s mental health benefits.”

Professor Andy Smith

Mental health and Covid-19 – a perfect storm

The charity Mind found that over half of younger people (52%) and almost half of adults (49%) felt their mental health had got worse while unable to take part in their usual sport or exercise during lockdown. The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that one in five adults in the UK experienced some form of depression in early 2021 – more than double pre-pandemic levels.

Tackling the Blues

With a reported 10-year gap between children first displaying symptoms and getting help,* addressing mental health problems early is vital – and schools, children and young people are key to making that happen.

Tackling the Blues, Edge Hill’s award-winning early intervention programme, developed in partnership with Everton in the Community (EitC, the official charity of Everton Football Club), has improved the mental health of more than 1,000 young people across Merseyside and Lancashire. Based in schools, the programme targets young people aged 5-16 with, or at risk of developing, mental health problems. Using sport and other learning activities, Tackling the Blues helps children understand and cope with their emotions, identify their own coping strategies and become more aware of their own and other people’s mental health.

Tackling the Blues was cited as good practice in the UK’s Health Select Committee 2017 report on suicide prevention and was awarded the  Times Higher Education Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to the Community in 2016. The programme’s activities have been embedded in the work of other sports charities and awarded the silver medal in the 2020 Sports Business Awards. Tackling the Blues has also been used to develop mental health training for teachers and university student mentors, and has informed whole school approaches to mental health support, new curricular activities and even new posts focusing on mental health in some schools.

Since its introduction in 2015, Tackling the Blues has been expanded to encompass a collaboration with Tate Liverpool to deliver art, alongside sport. Learning from the programme also informed an evaluation of Offload, a men’s mental fitness programme initially delivered by Rugby League Cares to leading rugby league clubs including Warrington Wolves, Salford Red Devils and Widnes Vikings.

Find out more about Tackling the Blues by watching the following video:

Helping the helpers

In a research field that is dominated by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, Edge Hill is breaking new ground with its work on improving the mental health and wellbeing of the sport and physical activity workforce.

Drawing on insights from sociology and public health, to complement traditional approaches, Professor Smith and colleagues worked with grassroots and elite sports workers such as coaches to examine the mental health needs of this often-neglected group within sport. They found that many coaches were reluctant to access mental health support within their own organisation and revealed, for the first time, that there is a significant public health challenge among community sport coaches especially which needs to be met as part of a duty of care in sport.

Edge Hill’s research also informed the development of the first International Consensus Statement on Psychosocial and Policy-Related Approaches to Mental Health Awareness in Sport (with engagement from 26 organisations from seven countries) which made a number of recommendations to improve mental health awareness in sport_ at all levels and for all workers. Following this, Professor Smith was asked to sit on the national Duty of Care Steering Group by UK Coaching which is designed to support the mental health of coaches among many other duty of care matters.

At a time when sport is increasingly being seen as part of the solution to poor mental health, and mental health literacy is becoming an integral part of the role of all who work in sport, it is vital that there is support for those who are charged with supporting others.

Support in a post-Covid world

The pandemic has triggered a mental health crisis. Already widening inequalities in health were exposed and amplified by Covid-19, making life for many people – and especially those who were already experiencing poor mental health and other inequalities – even more challenging.

In recognition of his expertise in sport and mental health, Professor Smith has been commissioned by the Sport for Development Coalition and the charity MIND to write a government policy brief outlining sport’s contribution to the mental health crisis post-Covid, with a focus on addressing mental health and other social inequalities. The report will identify practical solutions to how community sport can be part of the national response to the crisis and is intended to inform future government policy and the practice of many national organisations which deliver community sport.

As part of Edge Hill’s commitment to produce research that benefits local communities, this national report will inform Edge Hill and EiTC’s collaborative work looking at the impact of Covid on the Liverpool City Region.

“Suicide rates among men are tragically high, which is why they have traditionally been the focus of support. But sadly, over recent years, suicide is becoming more common in women in the Liverpool City Region. What we’ve learnt is that we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball with women’s mental health either, so things that we’re doing now are designed to support women too.”

Andy Smith, Professor of Sport and Physical Activity 

Our research means that…

Children and young people are able to better understand and look after their own mental health and that of others, leading to reduced mental illness and suicide.

 Sports coaches and other workers and volunteers have their mental health needs recognised and are officially supported through the duty of care of sports organisations.

Schools and sports clubs have tried and tested ways of introducing mental health literacy into the curriculum and support to make changes.

Sports bodies and government have evidence about the impact of sport on mental health to inform policy decisions, particularly the response to the Covid-19 mental health crisis.

* www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk

Find out more about Andy Smith's research by viewing his profile on Pure
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