The #softandfluffy project was a collaboration between People’s Voice Media, University of Huddersfield and Creative Minds, designed to find new ways of evaluating so-called “soft and fluffy” creative activities that support mental health and wellbeing. We trained a peer-led network of Community Reporters from participants of these creative activities to evaluate them and provide new insights and use them to inform conversations of change. The project looked at many different services, and the stories gathered can all be found here, but this feature article will focus on The Good Mood League (GML), a football league for those who use Creative Minds’ services.
The GML was founded in 2007 with a £500 launch event. Over the ensuing 12 years, it has helped hundreds of service users with mental health problems. As can be seen in the stories gathered, it has helped people get their lives back on track, stay out of hospital and helped forge many friendships and community connections.
The story gathering sessions garnered stories from both service users and support workers involved with the GML. This article will look at some of the main themes to emerge from the stories collected.
“Don’t give me a tablet. Give me a football.”
One thing almost every storyteller agreed on was that physical activity and the subsequent improvement in physical health has a strong, positive impact on their mental health. One man says “Personally, I’m a big believer in exercise that helps your mental health and wellbeing,” which is a conclusion he reaches from both his own experience and his university studies. He firmly believes that sport and support-based treatments are preferable to drug therapy, saying “I’ve suffered a but with depression and I’ve always said: ‘Don’t give me a tablet. Give me a football, give me a group, and I’d be happy to go.’”
Another man points out that “fitness isn’t for everyone but it provides an outlet – allows me to make myself feel tired – and feel progression on a weekly basis” in terms of physical and mental wellbeing. Mick, who now captains his squad after initially keeping himself to himself when he joined the GML, says “When we’re in the game and playing football, you can see people come to life and smiling.” Meanwhile, Habib, a member of the Kirklees Insight Team, working with individuals suffering their first episode of psychosis, points out that activities such as the GML are vital in the recovery process. “The more active they [the clients] are, the more groups they engage in, their routine becomes better, they have more structure and I can have more conversations with them. I can engage with them more, rather than if I’m going to see them just at home doing nothing.”
It’s clear that physical activity such as football can be of huge benefit to those suffering with mental health problems. Whether it’s the very literal fact of improved physical wellbeing giving a boost to mental wellbeing, or the way in which sport engages people and gives them focus, the benefits to the GML’s players are clear.
“If you work together with your team, you can win.”
One of the biggest threads to emerge from the stories is that of a team environment encouraging friendships and preventing isolation – a major issue for those struggling with their mental health. It’s a factor that comes up in nearly all of the stories.
David is a Social Worker based at SPARC, a mental health charity supporting adults with severe mental health problems such as schizophrenia and psychosis. He talks about the level of support the players give each other – especially when they’ve lost a match. “Sometimes when they’ve lost it’s better. It’s a check on reality in that they realise even though they’ve lost it doesn’t matter. They have people and friends around them to support and help.”
One man who’s participated in the GML for 10 years points out that playing football with other service users gives a feeling of integration: “We’re understanding of each other. We all enjoy being together and playing sports. It means a lot to us – it’s something we can have in our lives on a daily basis.” Another, Mick, recommends others with mental health issues get involved “because you can meet people with similar problems and support each other along your journey [of recovery].” Ian, a health trainer with a recovery college who has had mental health issues of his own says “It’s made a huge difference for me to get me up and running again – I relapsed three times with my illness – just to get out there, to socialise and become a team.” Another man explains how playing football has helped his communication skills by encouraging him to talk to others: “When you play a match, you have to talk. If you don’t, there’s no communication in the game. If you work together with your team, you can win.”
However, as you can imagine in a competitive environment, everyone doesn’t get on all of the time. Andrewpoints out that “all the lads are genuine, but boys will be boys and everyone bickers [sometimes].” Despite this, it’s clear from the stories that friendships have developed and that these friendships have blossomed off the pitch as well, with mentions of playing snooker together during free time, or getting the train to matches and tournaments together.
It’s apparent from the stories that all of the players feel the benefit of socialising with others with similar issues and the support network that creates. Just the simple act of getting out of the house and seeing others in a group environment is a lifeline to many.
“Football has changed their lives for the better.”
There are many mentions of how the GML has changed the lives of those involved in it, largely revolving around improved confidence and as a means of shifting focus from players’ problems.
David tells us, “Over the years, from the feedback I’ve received from the players, is that football has changed their lives for the better. They feel they are part of the ‘normal’ world. … On that football pitch, they feel human and it’s an absolutely wonderful feeling.” Frazer, a GML player, adds, “‘t’s made a big difference to me believing in myself and that I can actually do something - being scared to do something and being a bit shy - really you just need to do it and you'll enjoy it. It was hard at first because I didn't know anyone and I wasn't confident, but as you come back to sessions you make friends, enjoy yourself and have fun.” Another playerwho has been participating for a decade says how players have “all prospered from having these activities available for us.” Michael, a player with SPARC United, says how football “gives me a boost and makes me feel better and more confident in myself.”
This improved self-confidence has a big impact not just on the pitch but in the world outside as players translate their experiences to day-to-day life, giving them a sense of purpose and belief in their own abilities. This is vital in so many arenas, from family life to work and everything in between.
“It’s a great step forward.”
The universal appeal of football allows the GML to work towards destigmatising mental health problems within the wider community and removing barriers to support, something that players have noticed.
Ian mentions the difference it makes seeing mental health support staff in a non-clinical environment: “To see people up and down in uniforms or with badges, … it takes a bit of freedom away. It [GML] gives us the opportunity to get out and socialise with [mental health support staff] we see year in, year out.” Andrew, meanwhile, discusses how this, in turn makes it easier to discuss issues as being able to talk without stigma makes people more likely to speak out when they’re struggling: “It’s a great step forward.”
One of the people behind the GML explains how partnerships with bigger, more recognisable organisations has helped with this aim: “Without forming a partnership with the Zone, the FA, and the bigger players, we will struggle to do it [destigmatise mental health] on our own. Partners bring their own expertise and knowledge to this.” He also discusses how part of this destigmatisation is removing barriers that make mental health support services difficult for people to access – something that the GML is already doing. He says that “people aren’t hard to reach; people are always there. It’s services that are hard to reach.”
One of these barriers is, of course, the extreme pressures mental health services – along with the NHS in general – are under. However, projects such as the GML can help alleviate these pressures. Habib explains by comparing GML training and matches to one-to-one home visits, “If anything, it takes the strain off services. You’re engaging with 10 people in one sitting, allowing services to manage their time better.”
The stories highlight the community-based approach of the GML and how it is working towards removing stigma and barriers. However, concerns about funding arise repeatedly with worries about what would happen to participants if funding was withdrawn, and hopes for more funding in the future.
The Good Mood League is a prime example of a “soft and fluffy” activity that provides mental health and wellbeing support and the experiences of the support workers and players demonstrates that a means of evaluating this kind of activity is vital in showing its worth as its outcomes can’t be strictly measured with quantifiable data.
You can read more about the outcomes of the #softandfluffy project in the Peer-Led Evaluation of the project.