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Wellbeing boost when sports coaches given Mental Health First Aid training


A new research report makes the case for training sports coaches in Mental Health First Aid to improve young people’s wellbeing.

The ‘Sport For Better Mental Health’ report, published by national youth charity StreetGames in partnership with Brunel University London, emphasises how sports coaches can play a central part in young people’s lives – not just as facilitators of sporting talent, but as trusted role models who can support emotional development and better mental health.

The report’s publication today, at the start of the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week, coincides with the launch of StreetGames’s #21by21 campaign, which plans to provide 21,000 UK sports coaches and volunteers with mental health training by 2021.

Trusted role models

The report includes findings from a UK survey of 14–24 year-olds commissioned by StreetGames that confirm this ‘trusted role model’ view of coaches among young people:

  • Nearly half (43%) of the 14–24 year-olds surveyed from across the UK said they would turn to their sports coach for emotional support and advice.
  • 1 in 5 (20%) said they would confide in a coach about something that’s worrying them; 21% said they’d turn to a coach for motivation for school, college or university; 15% for career advice; and 10% to talk about problems with friends.
  • Despite this willingness to talk, 6 out of 10 (67%) agreed it is much harder to talk openly about their mental health than their physical health because of the stigma attached to mental health issues. The older the young person, the more they agreed – 74% of 22–24 year-olds, compared to 69% of 19–21 year-olds and 65% of 14–18 year-olds.

More young people living in households with an annual income of £20,000 or less (the bottom 20–30%, as defined by England’s Index of Multiple Deprivation) said they would confide in a coach, compared to higher-income groups in the survey. Disadvantaged teenagers are also three times more likely to endure mental ill health than their more affluent peers.

Research finds significant wellbeing boost

Findings from Brunel’s research into the impact of the ‘Safe, Fit & Well’ programme delivered by coaches trained in Mental Health First Aid are also shared in the report. The national StreetGames programme piloted the provision of sport for better mental health as a direct response to feedback from coaches and professionals from across the UK.

“Our research shows that the wellbeing of some of Britain’s most disadvantaged young people can be significantly improved by training their community sports coaches in mental health awareness,” said Professor Louise Mansfield, Professor of Sport, Health and Social Sciences at Brunel.

“Doorstep sport, particularly when tailored to the needs of young people with mental health issues, had a positive impact on self-reported mental health.

“We hope that this report and the awareness generated by the StreetGames network and the #21by21 campaign will help to provide a deeper understanding of the role community sports have in improving young people’s self-esteem, confidence and sense of belonging and in de-stigmatising talking about mental health.”

Make mental health training commonplace

Jane Ashworth, Chief Executive of StreetGames, explained: “Coaches across the country tell us that they regularly see signs of mental ill health in their sports projects - young people experiencing depression, anxiety, alienation and sadly sometimes self-harm and suicide. They say that they want to help but feel ill-equipped, not knowing what to say or how to direct youngsters to appropriate specialist support.

“We know that some 75% of lifetime mental health disorders have their onset before age 18, with peak onset of most conditions occurring between the ages of eight and 15.

“Through our work with businesses and over 1,000 community organisations in the StreetGames network, our aim is to make Mental Health First Aid training for youth sport coaches and volunteers across the UK as commonplace as physical first aid.”

The Brunel research team concluded that Mental Health First Aid training not only equips coaches to deliver sport that improves mental health outcomes for young people, it also helps to encourage youngsters in disadvantaged areas to be more active.

While over three quarters (77%) of the 14–24 year-olds from across the UK surveyed by StreetGames said they take part in sport or physical activity at least once a week, 1 in 10 (11%) said they don’t do any sport/exercise at all, and reported inactivity was almost double (21%) among those living in households with annual incomes of £20,000 or below.

Big-name backers

The report makes encouraging reading for #21by21 campaigners who believe in the power of sport to drive positive social change. Including supporters Dame Kelly Holmes, who heads-up her own national charity to support athletes and young people living in disadvantaged communities, The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, and TV doctor and former Gladiator Dr Zoe Williams, whose Fit4Life organisation encourages children to lead healthier lives.

Dr Zoe Williams said: “With celebrities and even members of the Royal Family now talking openly about mental health, the message is starting to get through to young people that it’s okay not to be okay and to seek help. But we know that GPs aren’t always the first point of call for young people - they often confide in adults they trust outside of a healthcare setting. It’s great then to see how #21by21 is helping to support trusted adults in community sport, increasing understanding of mental health conditions and knowledge for helping young people in distress.”

Dame Kelly Holmes said: “I know from personal experience that sport has the power to support young people to develop emotionally as well as physically. It builds self-esteem, confidence and often life-long friendships. Making sure that everyone delivering sport for young people can spot signs of mental ill health and provide appropriate help when it’s needed adds to its benefit. Whether it’s for a professional coach or a mum or dad helping out on the sidelines, mental health first aid training in community sport helps to support better mental health for young people.”

Download the ‘Sport for Better Mental Health’ report – and find out more about Brunel University London's Welfare, Health and Wellbeing research theme.

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