how football helps men with mental health

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A five-a-side football initiative in Wigan is thriving because it gives men who might have become isolated an outlet

In 2017 Peter Hill set up Place2Place FC, a five-a-side team in Wigan for men facing challenging circumstances. It followed the loss of his best friend to suicide in 2014. Two more friends took their lives in 2015 and 2016. “There was no initial plan. I was just looking for an outlet,” he says.

One team grew to two, then to 10, and eventually an entire division with the aim of ending the stigma surrounding male mental health. Now 12 teams and 80 players turn up at Winstanley Warriors in the heart of Wigan each Thursday to talk, to break the silence or simply to escape and play football. “It’s just a bit of five-a-side to congregate around,” says Hill. “We provide a safe environment for people to play football.”

If that sounds simple, it has proved anything but. When Hill’s team first arrived at their local facility, they were told in no uncertain terms by the league organisers that their players did not have a problem with mental health, and that this “might not be the right division for them”. Some opposition players just did not get it. “We found the first league to be rough, lots of players going out to break people’s legs who told us to ‘man-up’. It took time to deliver our message because you find yourself challenging behaviour on a regular basis.”

Hill and Place2Place decided to establish a division where such aggression would not be tolerated and which could instead help to play a role in preventing mental illness. “Our league is about prevention by early intervention,” says Hill, who was one of 15 nominees for BBC Sports Personality of the Year’s Unsung Hero award. “We try and follow up people whenever we spot issues. Some of the people that sometimes are most in need of support are the ones acting aggressively. It’s really nothing to do with the football, it’s the fact they are struggling off the pitch.”

Football, now more than ever, is a results business where “toughness” is seen as a virtue. That is as true in Sunday league football as it is of managers’ fragile tenures in the top flight, which often means the sport becomes a hotbed of toxic competitiveness rather than a driving force for social inclusion. “I was never the first picked,” Hill says, painting a familiar scene. “I remember my teacher put me in the football team to make a few friends. I scored an own goal on my debut.”

There are still plenty of clangers on Thursday nights, but now the atmosphere is different. The usual soundscape of irate groans and shouts of frustration are gone. After all, what’s the point? “Nobody’s Messi or Ronaldo,” Hill says with a chuckle. “We’re all average mid‑30s overweight painters, joiners, decorators, office workers.”

The club’s secretary, Dan Mather, is one of their success stories. He had been looking after his mother for the last months of her long battle with breast cancer. When she passed away, his mental health deteriorated. He joined midway through the original five-a-side team’s first season, to give his life some direction and to help alleviate his grief. “It gave me a sense of normality. It gave me the catalyst to get myself well again. It saved my life.”

As well as the matches, Hill and Mather host messenger groups where players are free to share their troubles. Starting out, the hope was just to support one person; now, the league helps dozens of men every week. But Hill stresses that what Place2Place does is simple. It is “just football”, he keeps saying, and yet he knows football can mean so much more. Place2Place aims to help dismantle harmful masculine identity, but it also restores a simple ritual in playing football that many men lose once they enter their 30s and beyond. “I could just be a bloke again,” Mather adds.

“It’s not ‘Let’s all talk about feelings’,” Hill says. “At the time you’re talking about tactics from the last hour. But it’s surprising how many lads become isolated. We try to fix that.”

Male suicide rates reached their highest level since 2002 last year, according to a report from the Office for National Statistics, with men aged 45 to 59 found to be most at risk. Wigan’s male suicide rate, 18.4 per 100,000 in 2016-18, is far above the national average.

There are signs football is finally breaking its own silence on mental health. A record number of footballers sought help from the PFA for mental health problems last year and in the last 18 months there have been various high-profile instances of players opening up about their struggles with depression, including Danny Rose, Marvin Sordell and Michael Carrick.

Source: The Guardian

Author: Finn Ranson

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