The link between sport and mental health

Ahead of Mental Health Awarness Week, Amar Mehta looks at the impact sport can have on the mental well-being of young people. 

In every classroom, three children have a diagnosable mental health problem. This doubled between the 1980s and mid-2000s. That roughly translates into one in 10 children aged 5-16.

This is a staggering statistic. Yet, young people’s mental health has been brushed under the carpet shrouded in shame, guilt and invisibility. Parents often struggle to find help for their children or know how best to support them.

Sport and exercise is becoming increasingly popular, not just to improve physical wellbeing but also mental wellbeing. A study undertaken by BMC public health (2015) found a clear link between exercise and an improved life satisfaction amongst young people, especially those who participated in sports.

It found that participation in team sports can help young people gain confidence. This was the case for Sam, 22, a Youth Activist at YoungMinds and volunteer at Sport in Minds. Sam spent seven months in hospital due for depression and anxiety. When he was released for a few weeks at a time, he came across Sport in Minds.

Sam started playing football and said: “Playing football with other people has helped bring me back into the wider world. I have always liked football and it was always something that made me happy, even before I was in the hospital.

“The casual football I play with others who suffer from mental health issues have brought us together. The team element was a lot better for me personally, there is a community feeling with everyone being there for each other.”

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When speaking to Sam, he talked in detail about how playing Snooker negatively affected his mental health. He would be on cloud nine if he won but at his worst if he lost. However, he spoke about football being so much better for his mental health and wellbeing.

He said: “It’s a support network and it can sometimes be a platform for people to talk about a full range of issues, its normal in this environment.”

Speaking to Sam, it was clear that playing football has and still is helping him. Programmes run by Sport in Minds are growing and is a great way to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

In 2015, Mind launched the Get Set to Go programme, to help people with mental health struggles benefit from physical activity. Alongside Sport England and the National Lottery, participants are encouraged to increase their activity level.

The programme lasted three years and supported 3,585 people with mental health problems. From these three years, Mind found that taking part in physical activity can reduce anxiety, stress, clear the mind, improve self -esteem and help people connect.

It is clear from Get Set to Go and speaking to Sam that exercise and sport can improve your mental wellbeing.

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the mental wellbeing of professional athletes.

Sam said: “Young people will definitely be more likely to open up about mental health if professionals are talking about it. They look up to footballers and want to be like them.

“It was extremely taboo years ago but is less so now. But, generally, it is older or retired professionals who open up about mental health. Young people might not relate to them as much as younger players. It would be great to see a younger generation of professionals opening up about their mental health.”

Steps are being taken to make mental health a priority for professionals. In March this year, the government introduced a new action plan.

Tracey Crouch, Minister for Sport and Civil Society, said: “We know that sport has a very positive impact on people’s mental health and can help in their recovery. But when sport is your job, the immense pressure to succeed can become too much.

“This Action Plan sets out how Government, sports and mental health organisations can work together to give athletes the right support before they reach crisis point.”

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