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Footballers can help tackle the nation's mental health issues in schools, according to a new report.

10 October 2018

A pilot scheme, run by Cambridge United Community Trust, has increased pupils' understanding of the topic, as players reveal ways in which they look after their own mental health.

The programme is part of Cambridge United’s announcement in July of their plan to become a ‘Mentally Healthy’ Football Club.

The Mind Your Head programme has seen staff and players from the League Two side visit six schools in the city, working alongside pupils in the classroom.

More than 500 pupils aged 12-14 have so far taken part in targeted lessons covering areas including wellbeing, social media and coping with stress.

Over the course of six weeks, six one-hour sessions have included presentations, Q&As and watching videos in which male and female players revealed their own experiences with mental health.

The aim of the scheme was to increase the participants’ knowledge of mental health issues, improve resilience and understand the importance of good mental health.

An evaluation of the programme, carried out by Leeds Beckett University’s Carnegie School of Education, observed that all the pupils taking part had benefited from increased awareness and knowledge of the topic.

Report author Professor Jonathan Glazzard said: “Mind Your Head is a great example of the education sector working with the community to improve an issue of vital importance.

“Many people are still reluctant to talk about their mental health, so it’s empowering when footballers talk publically about their issues, such as stress and looking after their own mental health.

“They tend to have experienced their own mental health issues: athletes have a perfectionist trait that provides them with the motivation to succeed, but also has drawbacks in terms of the associated pressures.

“The work being undertaken in Cambridge has shown significant improvements in mental health literacy among the pupils involved. This sort of initiative, carried out on a national scale, could only help improve knowledge and understanding of mental health among school children.”

Before pupils took part in the programme, tests were carried out to gauge their mental health “literacy” – their knowledge about mental disorders with regard to recognition, management and prevention.

In the initial tests, pupils scored on average 66.7 per cent for mental health literacy. After the project, this rose to 72.4 per cent, a statistically significant increase.

All different gender and ethnic groups analysed saw increases in mental health literacy from the programme. Girls had initially higher mental health literacy scores and also finished higher than boys.

The evaluation report said: “They (the pupils) were able to identify the signs of mental illness and they could describe ways of supporting others who experience mental ill health.

“They were able to identify population groups at risk of developing mental ill health. They could talk about the importance of being resilient in the face of adversity and they were able to identify the negative effects of social media and ways of keeping themselves safe online.

“They valued the opportunity to develop their awareness of mental health through listening to athletes speaking about their own issues.”

The report added: “It is possible that the programme delivered in Cambridge will lead to improvements in adolescent mental health.”

Finally the report concluded: “Overall, Mind Your Head is clearly valued by pupils and schools and delivers measurable, statistically significant improvements in Mental Health Literacy across all genders and ethnicities.”

Ben Szreter, CEO of Cambridge United Community Trust, said “The project has been a great success so far. The schools we have worked with have been so welcoming and it’s great that football is able to contribute positively to the young people’s understanding of their own mental health.”

“It has become increasingly obvious that mental health is an area that needs real social attention. Our programme aimed to gain young people’s interest in the topic by using the context of professional football and we are delighted that so far that seems to have been effective.

Cambridge United Community Trust have confirmed that Mind Your Head would continue again in the current academic year with new pupils from the schools previously delivered in and also and expansion into more schools around Cambridgeshire. Mind Your Head has been funded by donations from Inc., the MindEd Trust and private individuals.

What they said: pupil quotes:

To me mental health is understanding my own feelings, being healthy in my mind and physically healthy.  (Student, Y8)

It is really important to talk to other people. If you don’t let your emotions out it will just get worse. Sometimes it is easier to talk to parents than a teacher or you can talk to people that you trust. You can also talk to your siblings. You don’t have a deeply personal connection with your teachers like you have with your friends, so it is easier to talk to friends. (Student, Y9)

I used to break mirrors or punch walls when I was upset and stressed. Now I try to take time out and remove myself from stressful situations so that I can think about how to deal with it. (Student, Y8). 

You can talk to your friends and family on social media. The disadvantages are that you can get stalked. People can create fake accounts. You can get cyber-bullied. People can hack into other people’s accounts and you might not know who is communicating with you. People can become jealous of other people’s lives and this can make you sad and depressed. (Student Y9)

Some of the pictures (on social media) can be fake so people can make out that they are leading an exciting life but really they are not and this can make others feel worthless. (Student Y8)

I realise that social media has an impact on my sleep. I find it addictive and I am always checking what friends are doing through social media and texting.  (Student Y9)

What they said: teacher quotes:

Students now understand that the majority of people experience mental health issues at some point in their lives. They know they are not the only one to feel like this.  (Teacher, School 1)

The students don’t fall to pieces anymore when they get a low grade. They pick themselves up, dust themselves down and do better next time. (Teacher, School 2)

Click here to read the full report.

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