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A friendly kickabout boosts my physical and mental health

Tuesday, 30 January 2024 James

James explains how football and Watford FC has helped him recover from depression and psychosis.

Five years ago, I was experiencing higher anxiety and depression as a result of suffering from a psychotic episode and being sectioned.

I was finding it really difficult to get my life back together, I had put on a lot of weight from taking heavy medication, my confidence and self-esteem were also at an all-time low.

Then during one of my weekly sessions with my care coordinator, I was telling her that I used to enjoy playing football and I was a Watford FC supporter. She then suggested that I try out a nearby football group that had been recently launched and was being run by a charity (Watford FC’s Community, Sport & Education Trust).

It’s called ‘Man On’ and it exists for men over 18 who suffer with their mental health. The usual format of the sessions includes a friendly kickabout, as well as a chance to get peer support from not only the coaches, but the participants too. All the coaches are Mental Health First Aid trained and are very approachable. They also offer private 121 sessions before or after the physical activity if anyone needs it.

Fast forward to present day and I now still try and attend the session every week, because it gives me an enormous boost every time I take part. I am now in much better shape physically and mentally and I owe a lot of that to taking part in this activity over the last few years.

I’ve made some really good friends from the group as well. We also socialise outside of the sessions when we can. This usually takes the form of watching football at a local sports bar, or going to the cinema, playing pool, and even going to see one of the Watford FC matches at their home stadium if we can get tickets. Sometimes we are able to get free tickets through our coaches, which I think is a really nice touch.

Being supported when I had relapse

Sadly, I ended up suffering with a relapse of psychosis at the end of 2019, but everyone from the group were very supportive. The coaches even said to my partner and my mum to contact them if they needed anything, which we all really appreciated. I remember having a few extra one to ones with them around that time, which helped me stay strong and focus on recovering.

The group have been with me for highs and lows. In 2022, I even asked their opinion about the front cover of my upcoming first book (called “Befriending My Brain: A Psychosis Story”), as the publisher gave me a couple of options to choose from. Then in 2023 after it was published, I told them that I wanted to create the audiobook version but didn’t have the equipment or expertise. One of the guys came forward and said we could do this at his house, as he had all of the gear we needed from his experiences with recording music. I was delighted that we could finish the audiobook together last year, something I didn’t think would ever happen!

“I have a platform where I can speak out if I’m struggling, and I can give advice if anyone else is going through a hard time.”

We also have a brilliant WhatsApp group and I feel lucky to have a platform where I can speak out if I’m ever struggling. I can give out my advice if anyone else is going through a hard time as well. Some of us have the same mental health diagnosis, for example, I have schizoaffective disorder and so do a few of the boys, so it is nice to know we are in it together! There have been times when I have posted in the WhatsApp group that I am struggling or stressed, they are so quick to respond offering their support and suggesting a phone call or meeting up for a coffee. And the coaches are great as they monitor the group to check if anyone is struggling and needs support.

I feel particularly happy that the coaches are always around to support us if we are going through hard times. There was a time a couple of years ago when I was feeling particularly anxious and I expressed this to the group. After this, I found it heart-warming to have plenty of offers to help. One of them came from the main coach that runs the project, who suggested that after that week’s kickabout we sit down inside together and talk it out.

Having a safe space

I remember speaking with him for about half an hour, I shared and unloaded everything that was swirling around inside my head. He made me realise that my cause of anxiety was common and offered plenty of solid advice and solutions. I went from feeling so lost and heavy to having a much clearer head and sense of relief. I will never forget how helpful the chat was. It felt like the best therapy and provided a real turning point for me. I haven’t looked back since then, and my anxiety these days is much lighter. I know that I have a safe space to go again if I need it, which is confidential and free from judgement.

Our coaches are really good and bigging us up when we are doing well (in addition to supporting those struggling). Last year the same coach who helped me with anxiety nominated me for a ‘mental health champion’ award at a local gala event ran by their charity. I was ecstatic when I won that award and still look back on that with great pride. It was a wonderful ‘full circle’ moment compared to when I started the physical activity session all those years ago with poor mental health.

I would highly recommend trying out one of your local physical activity groups if you can. You will be surprised with the amount of benefits you get from them; they often become a vital part of maintaining your mental wellbeing.

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