Support for men's mental health

Edge Hill University's sport and mental health team help a sporting charity.

Edge Hill University academics have helped a sporting charity secure funding to extend a successful mental health programme for men.

The University’s sport and mental health research team were commissioned by Rugby League Cares (RL Cares) to explore the impact of their Offload programme which aims to improve men’s mental health; the results are now being made public to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Thursday 10 October.

Between 1 April 2017 and 30 September 2018, 972 men from some of England’s most deprived communities, with a high prevalence of suicide, engaged in the Offload programme.

After taking part, 78 per cent of men reported feeling more aware of how to look after their health and wellbeing, and 74 per cent felt better able to cope with everyday life.

The Edge Hill report has helped RL Cares secure a further grant from the National Lottery Community Fund which will enable Offload to continue for at least another two years in the three existing areas of Salford, Warrington and Widnes, with the ambition to expand into more rugby league communities.

Led by Professor Andy Smith and involving research assistant Rachel Wilcock, Dr David Haycock and Jon Jones, the Edge Hill team worked closely with Offload participants, RL Cares staff, former rugby league players, officials and clinical mental health experts to assess impact.

Professor Andy Smith said: “We were delighted to undertake research which will positively impact on the mental health of men from some of the most disadvantaged communities in North West England.

'We worked with the clubs and delivery staff from State of Mind Sport to design ways of effectively engaging men taking part in Offload, and to allow them to develop positive ways of coping with the mental health challenges they experience.

'How many men revealed to us that the programme has literally saved their life is quite humbling and is testimony to the hard work of everyone involved.'

One participant said: 'I can honestly say Offload saved my life. That night that I went to Offload for the very first time, I was planning to do it [attempt to take my own life] again, so I can’t sing its praises enough to be honest. I wouldn’t be here without it.'

Funded by the Big Lottery and in partnership with State of Mind Sport, Offload aims to address low level mental health problems by inviting men to engage with current and former players at Salford Red Devils, Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings. 

Participants are encouraged to become more aware of their own mental health and are equipped with tools and techniques to improve their wellbeing.

Many specifically praised the group dynamic at ‘fixtures’, the name given to Offload sessions.

'The camaraderie… seeing the way lads interact… they’re all at different levels but it doesn’t really matter what level you’re at, it just seems that everybody is genuinely concerned about everybody else as well, and you are a team.'

The honesty of former players who shared their own experiences of mental health problems was also highlighted in participant responses: 'Some of them are people I’ve admired because I am a rugby league fan. When I’ve seen what they’ve been through, it made it easier for me to offload my problems in front of a few people, which I wouldn’t have done before.'

Other benefits included increased confidence and self-esteem, more willingness to talk about mental health and developing better coping mechanisms.

'I used to just turn to drugs and alcohol', one participant said. 'That’s what I used to do every weekend, most nights, but now I don’t. Every time I feel down, I do something else that keeps me going, like exercise.'

Rachel Wilcock, a research assistant on the project, said: 'Our research indicated that the brand of rugby league, and the clubs specifically, was initially effective in recruiting men to Offload and holding the fixtures in non-clinical environments, using rugby league-style language, was especially important for men.

'It encouraged them to seek support for their mental health, helped destigmatize mental illness and enabled men to take greater control over their lives.'

Liam Parker, Health Manager at Rugby League Cares, commended the role played by the Edge Hill team in helping to increase engagement in Offload and ensuring participants experienced improved mental health.

He said: 'The findings of their research provide compelling evidence of the impact of Offload and their support has been essential in us securing an extra two years funding to continue the life-saving work of the programme.'

The Offload Evaluation Report is part of a wider programme of sport and mental health work carried out at Edge Hill University.

The Sport and Physical Activity Workforce Mental Health Survey is the first nationwide study of mental health in the sport and physical activity workforce and the Everton in the Community Partnership aims to use the power of sport to motivate, educate and inspire people in local communities to live healthier lifestyles.

An MSc in Sport, Physical Activity and Mental Health is available as a one-year full-time or two-year part-time course within the Department of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University.

Picture: Former Salford and Wales international Paul Highton with some of the Widnes Vikings ‘squad members’

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