Where’s the weirdest place you’ve watched a football match? For me, it was a secure mental health ward. In 2014 my mental health had reached its lowest ebb, gripped by irrational anxiety and an obsessive compulsive disorder that consumed my every thought, I attempted suicide. Thankfully, the attempt was unsuccessful, and 2 weeks later I found myself spending Saturday evening with my fellow inpatients watching Cristiano Ronaldo deliver La Décima for Real Madrid. Being admitted to a secure mental health ward is the single most terrifying event of my life, far scarier to me than the confrontation with my own mortality that had led me there. During that Champions League final, any fear I carried dissipated, I forgot myself and my surroundings, for the first time in a very long time, I felt normal, and football had given me that feeling. Six years on, during the most bizarre year of most of our lifetimes I felt the urge to write this piece, a discussion of the relationship between football and mental health.
2020 is a year which has taken a sledgehammer to normality and the mental health of the nation, the world in fact. There’s a climate of fear enveloping us all, not to mention the crippling loneliness and isolation so many are suffering as a result of long periods without personal interaction with loved ones. ‘Project Restart’ gave us a slight lift as supporters, after all, even the dystopian nightmare that is crowd-less football at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or worse, the London Stadium is better than no football at all. As we head into ‘Lockdown 2.0, The Reboot’ it appears elite level football will continue and that’s some saving grace at least.
The events of this year have inevitably led to some uncomfortable reminiscing for me on my own mental struggles, but on a more hopeful note it has also reminded me of the positive, restorative effect football can have on mental health for so many. I spoke with UTV’s founder and mental health advocate Luke Robinson on the subject, and found that his feelings were remarkably similar to my own. Luke described to me the positivity, distraction, and emotional release of attending a game and escaping your everyday for a while, in better times at Villa Park itself, with the extended claret and blue family.
The discussion with Luke gave me the motivation to reach out to other members of the Villa community through social media to hear stories of the remedial effect of football on mental wellbeing. I was touched by stories of loneliness being alleviated through interaction with fellow fans, tears of joy and sorrow watching games, football the therapist and fans the patients. One Twitter Villan described a 10 year battle with depression exacerbated by physical health issues, but that football felt like a place “where my demons go away and I can concentrate on the claret and blue for 90 minutes”.
Another Twitter user I approached was Dani, proud member of the Bedford Lions and the woman behind Villa Running Club. Dani came to my attention when she debuted on the UTV podcast giving her predictions for the season ahead, and she also introduced Villa Running Club, an online community of runners sharing times and runs during lockdown. What struck me most was Dani’s passion for the role running, football and the Villa community has to play in the psychological wellbeing of people. Dani was kind enough to give me some of her time to discuss Villa Running Club and how being a Villa fan in general impacted her mentally. Dani described to me how she felt she needed something like Villa Running during that first lockdown and found it was not something other Villans had yet done, so she filled the void. From there, Villa Running Club was born and it was, and continues to be a community of runners with a shared passion for Villa that importantly gives people the sense of belonging that is so beneficial to their mental and physical health. We talked at length about the running club, Villa Twitter and the creation of friendships, and what really shone through was the idea that times and performance were secondary to the mood boosting, serotonin releasing effects of the group and the physical activity itself. Dani found Villa as a child who had relocated to the second city from Manchester, and it was something that gave her a place, identity and pack to be part of, something it continues to do to this day with the Bedford Lions. That in many ways is the essence of football, togetherness, inclusion and belonging, and this does wonders for your head.
It would of course be remiss of me to write a piece on football and mental health without a discussion of the negatives. There can be a culture surrounding football, particularly at the elite men’s level, which emboldens toxic masculinity and damages the mental health of participants and fans. Social media can be a particularly dark place, a recent example being the likes of Henri Lansbury and Anwar El Ghazi leaving Twitter due to fan vitriol in the wake of the League Cup exit to Stoke City. This toxicity negatively impacts the mental health of the recipients. Imagine for a moment leaving your work place at the end of the day to be greeted by aggressive, hateful messages decrying your ability and worse. Examples such as the one I have provided demonstrate the need for the football world to do better, as does the heart-rending suicide of former Manchester City youth player Jeremy Wisten. There is of course no telling with certainty what led Jeremy to that place, but what is certain is that safeguards need to be in place for the aftercare of players at all levels when their involvement with a club comes to an end.
Football carries a huge level of responsibility on its shoulders, it impacts the lives of millions worldwide in a substantial way. During this winter lockdown it’s important we harness the positive aspects of the sport and all that comes with it. Allow yourself to be lost in games, to let emotions pour out, check in on your fellow supporters, social media when used in the correct way can be hugely effective at bringing you closer to those that share your passion, and that’s so important.
So be kind to yourself and others and although it may seem an age away, we’ll all be back at the Barton Arms one day, sinking pints, singing songs and heading en masse to that grand old stadium.
Up the Villa!
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