Aiming to change the game in mental health

17.10.14 Categories: How donations help, News

Above: Hull FC v Hull Kingston Rovers at Hull’s KC Stadium, in August 2014

Maudsley Learning is working with the world of sport to raise awareness of the importance of mental as well as physical wellbeing.

In September 2010, the sport of Rugby League was shocked to hear of the suicide of one of its most famous players: the Great Britain forward Danny Newton. He was just 31, and serving a ban after having failed a drugs test.

Newton’s death stirred one league fan, Dr Phil Cooper, an NHS Nurse Consultant, into exploring what he could do to help prevent another similar tragedy. ‘I had a big interest in sport and a passion for mental health; drug and alcohol misuse was my day job. I wanted to know whether we could offer rugby league more support from the NHS. I had a couple of meetings, got some key people involved and it all snowballed very, very quickly.’

State of Mind programme

Now, backed by Rugby League’s governing body and several NHS Trusts, the State of Mind programme gives presentations on mental health to players and fans nationwide and helps them to access help where required. In August, a weekend of Super League games carried State of Mind branding, with accompanying events to raise awareness.

‘I think there was scepticism from club owners when we started,’ says Phil. ‘But players say that you need to be mentally fit to play. If your mind’s not working you can’t perform, no matter how physically strong you are. And I think clubs have got that message now.’

Phil and some of his team from State of Mind were among the speakers at ‘Game Changing in Mental Health: Tackling Stigma and Building Resilience in Elite Sport’, a groundbreaking conference on sport and mental health organised by Maudsley Learning in July.

Other speakers included Paul Farmer, the chief executive of MIND, as well as professionals with experience of most of the UK’s major sports, among them the England football team doctor Ian Beasley; the founder of the Professional rugby players union Damien Hopley, and Ian Braid of the British Athletes Commission. Paralympic archery champion Danielle Brown spoke about the pressures of focusing months or even years of work towards a single decisive day of competition.

Testimonies from people in sport

As well as presentations of current academic research, the conference heard first-person testimony from sports people who had faced their own mental health issues. Ex-Rugby League player Danny Sculthorpe, now one of State of Mind’s outreach workers, and award-winning tennis coach Oli Jones both spoke bravely and movingly about their own experiences of depression.

Issues explored included the effects of retirement and long-term injury on self-esteem; and the need for professional sports to look after the huge percentage of would-be elite athletes who fall short of their dream of playing professional sport. The overriding theme, though, was of working to remove the stigma of mental illness.

Most delegates believed that the benefits of addressing mental health issues in and around elite sport would also extend to sports supporters and the community at large.

‘Football is a working-class sport and it’s a tool we can use to reach a wider audience,’ said Michael Bennett, a former footballer with Millwall, Brentford and Brighton, who is now the FA’s Head of Player Welfare. ‘The issue of mental health is massive and it’s not going to go away. You’re always going to get players that get injured or lose their contracts. Relationship issues. Financial issues. I’m trying to get things in place to deal with the fallout for the players who are going through those issues.’

Acting before it's too late

There have been a string of high-profile cases of sportsmen struggling with mental health issues in recent years, including the suicide of Wales football manager Gary Speed in 2011. It was perhaps the public case of England cricketer Marcus Trescothick, forced home from a tour of India by depression, in 2006 that first started to bring the issue into the public eye. Dr Nick Peirce, who as Chief Medical Officer of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has worked with Trescothick, was chair of the conference.

‘I thought it was a great mixture of personal testimony and good information from specific sports,’ he said afterwards. ‘There was an interesting openness admitting that we don’t really know all the answers, even when we do have the resources. We need to work on coach education, addressing stigma… But clearly we’ve come some way in the last seven or eight years in starting to break through, but we still have a long way to go.’

Conference organiser Genevieve Glover said that the conference was intended as a springboard for Maudsley Learning’s ongoing exploration of the subject of mental health in sport. ‘We wanted to start a conversation about mental health and elite sport. We pulled a great bunch of people together from all sorts of disciplines and the key now is to do something with it, to maintain momentum.’

You can help us support more people with mental health issues in all walks of life by donating to SLAM.