James blogs about how being part of a team – albeit now a virtual one – has boosted his mental health.
On World Mental Health Day last year (10th October 2019), the Premier League released a video of me. That sentence sounds ridiculous as I write this, but let me explain how my mug shot ended up alongside famous footballers on Google search.
Exercise has helped me a lot since suffering my first psychotic episode back in September 2016. It's now over three years since I had that first full psychotic breakdown, resulting in me being sectioned for four weeks under the Mental Health Act.
I started participating in a project called 'Man On', a football session in Watford aimed at men aged 18-65 who have experienced mental health difficulties.
Football has been a regular form of my weekly exercise since primary school. My enjoyment of playing and watching it has gone up and down over the years, but things changed once I discovered that one of my local charities (in Hertfordshire) was offering ninety minute sessions on a 4g astro turf near where I live and work.
Over the summer last year I started participating in a project called 'Man On', a football session in Watford aimed at men aged 18-65 who have experienced mental health difficulties. It happens at 12:30pm every Wednesday at the Meriden Community Centre and is run by Watford FC CSE Trust, the community charity of Watford Football Club.
Each week we do an hour session of training, including a friendly competitive match. Then we spend 30 minutes inside the centre with drinks and snacks, talking about our mental health (if we feel like sharing on the day). It is a great way to spend 90 minutes (the length of a professional game), and is easily one of the highlights of my week!
After a few months, I was asked to appear in a video, profiling me and promoting the project. Having done some other media work about my story (including two Mind blog posts), I was more than happy to help promote a fantastic local sport session and a wonderful local charity.
And so on Saturday 5th October I was interviewed, then shadowed by a film crew, as I trained with my 'Man On' teammates and played a friendly against FC Not Alone at our pitch in Watford.
I felt like a fake celebrity being followed around by a cameraman
We then went to Vicarage Road Stadium, to watch Watford FC play against Sheffield United in their premier league fixture. I was filmed outside, then inside the stadium. Other fans were jumping in front of the camera thinking they were getting on live television, I felt like a fake celebrity being followed around by a cameraman, it was such a bizarre yet cool experience!
I probably come across in the video a bit more confident than how I am in person. This is thanks to amazing national charities like Mind, who are always supporting people like me with mental illness. On the day, I tried my hardest playing football, as well as watching it with the friends I've made through Man On. I wore my heart on my sleeve and thought of all the brave professional football players who have inspired me over the years (for example, Watford captain Troy Deeney!).
When you have a strong support team of family and friends behind you, it can give you the determination you need not only to help yourself, but encourage others to share their mental wellbeing. I felt so good about what I was doing, I had a 'fire in my belly' type of sensation, similar to when I did the Great South Run for Mind (back in October 2018).
When the filming was over, I was relieved as it was a little stressful, but it was well worth doing for the cause. The match we all watched ended 0-0 which was a shame as Watford FC needed the win, but nothing could change the positive buzz I had about this day, which I will certainly never forget.
The day the video got released on the Premier League website and twitter was incredible. I was with the Man On gang that day too, playing in the national mental health football championships near Liverpool. (More on that tournament here.)
At this tournament were groups just like us, all very friendly and approachable, how football should be! We lost every game though sadly, but I managed to score a goal and our goalkeeper Mark received the 'keeper of the tournament' trophy, to me that felt like a massive win! I have to admit that I was also a bit distracted that day after the online video was released, I remember showing it to my teammates briefly between matches, then I had to get my concentration back on taking part in the tournament.
The camaraderie of being part of a football team has been particularly important for me recently. In December last year, I unfortunately had to go through another relapse, caused by a mistake in taking my medication.
I believe that sport can be excellent for mental wellbeing when it is done right.
Thankfully, after a few months of recovering under the care of a specialist mental health team in Hertfordshire, I am feeling back on track and ready to resume everyday life. I was still playing football with the guys every Wednesday during my recent recovery, the sessions have become like therapy to me!
I believe that sport can be excellent for mental wellbeing when it is done right. I feel like I can talk to any of the Man On guys about my mental health; we share things every week and it feels good. As well as the benefits of opening up about my mental health with the group, physical exercise helps release endorphins and serotonin, which makes me feel fantastic.
Sadly though, due to the recent Covid19 pandemic, the Man On sessions have had to become virtual (Zoom meetings), instead of our normal sessions. I have found this difficult, as the exercise and regular talks were a very therapeutic part of my week. We are still having an online quiz every Wednesday though which is really nice, but I cannot wait for the first proper session when the lockdown ends!
It is very upsetting that right now that all football is on hold (apart from playing Fifa and watching classic matches). I firmly believe that football for some people is a universal language and it brings people together from all walks of life. I am determined now more than ever, that my recent relapse is going to be my last. I think playing football and sharing my ups and downs will play a key part in maintaining good mental health in the future.
For some people though, it's not all about just football, which is fair enough. I would advise anyone to try all sorts of sport and exercise, then pick the ones that boost your mental health the most. As well as playing football, I also love yoga, cycling and running, but everyone is different! I hope you are all managing to enjoy your one exercise per day at the moment during these uncertain times. Whatever you do, keep at it and stay safe, we will get through this pandemic together and be back stronger than ever.
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