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Matchdays and mental health: “Consistency in an ever-changing world”

Today as part of our Mental Health Awareness week activity one of the volunteers who was instrumental in the creation of the #TerraceTalk campaign, Paul Severn of Nottingham Forest Supporters Trust, tells us why football is an important vehicle for talking about mental health problems…

Mental health is something that affects all of us. As football fans we’ve all been there when the ball hits the back of the net and the crowd erupts – but sometimes for us personally – it just doesn’t quite feel the same as normal. Perhaps we’ve listened to yet another disappointing away defeat on the radio and just shrugged, because at the time, something more important is happening our lives.

But we keep coming back to football. Two years ago, I started to wonder if football was good or bad for our mental health. Why do we come back to our clubs year after year, even when it seems hopeless or irrational?

I spoke to Alan Pringle who trained and worked in Glasgow as a mental health nurse. After relocating to Mansfield to work at Millbrook Mental Health Unit when it opened in 1987, Alan later moved into teaching and became assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham.

I also spoke to Alan’s colleague at the University, Tim Carter. Tim also has a background as a mental health nurse and is an assistant professor. Tim went on to help Nottingham Forest Community Trust with its new mental health initiative, It’s Tricky to Talk.

Alan’s PhD looked at the impacts of supporting a club on the mental health of football fans. As part of his research he interviewed a number of supporters and he kindly shared his findings with me.

“In terms of watching football and mental health, my PhD was based on Mansfield Town fans,” Alan said. “I wondered to myself what kept these fans supporting their team, standing in the rain, watching a 3-0 defeat.

“There was a series of in-depth interviews and I got volunteers to keep a diary of the season. What was surprising was the incredible similarities, regardless of their background.

“One of the things that came through was a sense of catharsis. The police officer and the lawyer were particularly interesting. They said they enjoyed having a break from dealing with all sorts of people and taking the uniform or suit off, and for 90 minutes, just getting rid of it all.

“The second thing was a sense of consistency in an ever-changing world. One lad said to me: ‘When I was a kid I went to Stags, when I was married I went to Stags, when I was divorced I went to Stags. When the pit closed I went to Stags, when I remarried I went to Stags, when I was divorced again, I went to Stags! The only thing that’s constant in my life is that I stand in the same bit of the ground and watch terrible football – and it’s always been there for me’.”

Alan also talked about the strong sense of connection across generations. He said: “Most grandsons don’t want to hear from grandad what it was like to work down the pit. Grandad doesn’t want to hear about the latest computer game. There was no shared language across the generations – apart from football.

“It was also about having a point of conversation, regardless of whether your team is doing well. Finally, there was a sense of identity, that ‘this is me’ and I can say what I like about Mansfield Town.”

Alan pointed out the benefits of going to a football club for those suffering from depression.

“For people suffering depression, going to a small club is brilliant,” he said. “No-one wants to talk to you about anything other than the trivialities of the game. Friends will ask how you are feeling, how you are sleeping or if you are taking your tablets. A professional will ask about your symptoms.”

But there challenges too, as Tim pointed out to me: “The masculine environment that surrounds football is a huge challenge, but that’s all the more reason to do something about it.

“Men are expected to bottle it up, have a laugh with their mates, keep doing it and just ‘man up’ if they are struggling. That standard is far too high. It’s not sustainable.

“That challenge is why it’s so important to get current and ex-players and managers to disclose their own mental health and show it is okay to talk about these things.”

Alan added: “When things are stacked against us, we are looking for every moment of light we can find and you are hoping that football will be your ray of light.

“I remember being in a lift in the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham shortly before Stags were relegated a few seasons ago. Even the voice in the lift said: ‘Going down.’ I thought even the lift was against us! It’s the curse of every fan.

“Football isn’t all wonderful, but what I have found on balance, is that there are substantially more good things than bad things.”

Mental health: Beyond the pandemic

Both Alan and Tim talked about the use of football grounds as a location for mental health initiatives and services.

Tim explained: “Football fans are captive audiences and target audiences. Many mental health awareness campaigns on television or on the bus get watered down, but with football, attention is there and it affects everybody.

“You can get things on screens, season tickets and Twitter feeds where people are actively looking. It’s visual and present.”

Alan talked about the origins of his work with football clubs: “A guy at Manchester United said to us: ‘When I walked out of a plane crash with my mates, I didn’t get any help with it. I really struggled. I also watched my mate George drink himself to death. Count me in. I want to do this.’ It was Bobby Charlton.”

Since my conversations with Alan and Tim, the Nottingham Forest Community Trust has launched ‘It’s Tricky to Talk’, which provides a space for Forest fans to find mental health support.

It is led by mental health instructor Claire Henson, also a Forest fan. As a board member of the Nottingham Forest Supporters’ Trust, I have helped to promote the work of the programme through articles and interviews and several Trust members joined a mental health awareness course – led by Claire.

I have been able to share some of our experiences and insights with other trusts and have been part of a working group to develop the Football Supporters’ Association’s #TerraceTalk programme.

But it’s vital that the renewed focus on mental health in football continues beyond the pandemic. While COVID-19 has made things more pressing, these challenges were here before, and will remain with us.

Perhaps when things are going badly in our lives we should think about how we see football. There’s always next Saturday, and always next season, when things might be a bit better.

Alan told me: “It’s about having friendships, connections, an outlet for catharsis and identity.

“These are things that might protect you against becoming unwell. It might be that we say: ‘This season you aren’t so much fun’ or ‘you seem a bit flat this afternoon’. This can signpost people to get help.”

Tim said: “Men particularly aren’t good at showing emotion, but a football ground is a place where showing emotions is normal.

“Fans can hug each other, be sad, cry, or be anxious without being judged. While people are in this emotional space, maybe if they see something about talking about feelings, it would hit home a little bit more than, for example, on a bus where you aren’t in an emotional state.

“People with depression can feel alone, but at football clubs people are together. They chant and sing for 90 minutes. It’s real emotion experienced together. In day-to-day life, people aren’t sitting with each other any more. It’s texts, emails and emojis. The connections you make through football are absolutely vital.”

The original, full version of this article appeared in Bandy and Shinty, issue 12, May 2019.

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