Health: Mental wellbeing given sporting chance

A nice report by Chris Bond reporting for the Yorkshire Evening Post

WHEN Daniel was a young teenager he trained as a Thai boxer and had dreams of becoming a national champion in the sport.

But within a couple of years his life had spiralled out of control as he fell into a world of alcohol and drug abuse, and by the time he was just 17 he was suffering from psychosis.

For the next seven years he was in and out of mental health hospitals, his hopes of a bright future ripped away from him.

“I couldn’t even go on the bus on my own because I’d get paranoid that people were out to get me,” he says. About six years ago he became so desperate he attempted to hang himself and says he would have succeeded if the cord hadn’t broken.Then in 2010 he was referred to Janette Hynes, founder of the Positive Mental Attitudes (PMA) Sports Academy, whose charity uses sport and education to help vulnerable people suffering from mental health problems such as schizophrenia and depression.

Since then Daniel, not his real name, has slowly built up his confidence to the point where he’s started doing Thai boxing again and now works as a coach alongside Janette, passing on his experiences to other troubled youngsters and showing them that they can overcome their demons.

The 26 year-old old, who lives in West Yorkshire, says PMA has helped him to turn his life around.

“I used to be very quiet but now I’m a hundred per cent more confident, my mam says it’s saved my life.” He still has to live with his condition but he’s able to control it better and wants to help raise awareness about mental health issues.

According to mental health charity Mind, one in four adults in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year, while one in 10 will experience depression. It’s a subject that is being explored in the BBC’s It’s A Mad World season, which features documentaries looking at a range of mental health issues affecting young people today. One of the programmes, Football, Madness And Me, screened tomorrow night on BBC Three, focuses on the fortunes of the PMA Sports Academy, based in London, where every member has, or is recovering from, a mental health problem.

It was set up by Janette Hynes, who is also featured in the documentary. She spent time working as an occupational therapist in a forensic unit, dealing with people with mental health problems who had been in prison. “They would be released into the community with no structure or meaningful activities, and would just get back into trouble and end up returning to hospital or prison,” she says.

What they needed, she thought, was an activity they cared about, which would help them to integrate back into the community. In the unit she worked at football was very popular, and as somebody who’d played the sport herself she knew the benefits of thegame went far beyond fitness, and believed that being part of a team can make a big difference to someone’s wellbeing. “It’s not something I set out to do but I felt there was a real need for it.”

She founded PMA in 2002 and started a community football team, PMA Hackney FC, in London which over time, came to include any young people with mental health problems, not just those with a criminal record. It steadily grew into a national league and since then she’s set up the PMA Pumas in Wakefield and hopes her charity will take root in Yorkshire. “I want to get this on the map in Yorkshire because I’m a northern lass and I want to continue to develop the PMA Sports Academy here in Yorkshire as an alternative way of learning.”

Janette has been working here for the past two years during which time she’s worked with more than 60 people, some as young as 16. “The football team is a form of therapy,” she explains. “Many of the participants would just have been sat at home alone - there was nowhere they could go because they didn’t have enough confidence to make friends.”

Being part of the team helps players in numerous ways, from building their confidence, learning about achieving goals, and gaining independence - something that, over the years, they might well have lost. “When I was working for the NHS, I saw a lot of people becoming too reliant on the system. We enable them to be independent,” she says. “We try and get them back on the road to recovery quite quickly, we sit down and work out their goals and what they want to achieve out of life.”

People are referred to her by local health agencies and drug and alcohol services. At the moment she runs weekly training sessions based at Wakefield Sports Club and has recently started running educational courses.  She would dearly like to help more people but has had to dip into her own pockets to keep the charity afloat and faces a struggle to attract outside funding. With public sector cash being squeezed, what funding is available is being chased by numerous good causes and there’s not enough in the pot to go around. “It’s not expensive and if we get funding it all goes back into the people. If we get them here we can help get them a job and back playing an active role in society,” she says.

It’s a fair point. The amount of money charity’s like this save the taxpayer is likely to be far greater than the cost of funding them in the first place.Many of those that get involved with PMA have been marginalised for large chunks of their life and quite often they need to be persuaded to join projects like this. The people who run the courses are qualified coaches, like Daniel, who’ve been through the programme themselves. They have 25 coaches and because they’ve been through their own problems the youngsters who come in have someone they can relate to and talk to. And while football is what gets people interested initially, Janette says it’s more about personal development and reaching realistic goals.

“Some want to be a football coach with us and we help them qualify for that, others want to go back to college to get their maths and English exams and some want to become footballers, and we’ve helped get some people up to professional and semi-professional levels. But some of them might want to get into farming, it doesn’t matter, it’s their goal and it’s about encouraging them as much a possible.”

Despite the tireless work of people like Janette and charities like PMA, there is still a stigma associated with mental health.

“You can’t turn your back on these kids and that’s why we’re here. These kids aren’t bad they just want to get their lives back on track.

“They don’t want to be in the system for the rest of their lives, but that’s what will happen if we don’t do more to help them,” she says.

“Yes, these kids have a problem but sometimes they don’t even know who they are themselves and they need a break. They’re constantly being told ‘you can’t do that because you might relapse’ or that they’re useless because they haven’t passed their school exams.

So suddenly they feel like they can’t do anything and they just think all they can do is go down to their local day centre because that’s their lot, but it’s not their lot and we’ve proved that.” Janette says not only is her approach working but it doesn’t have to be confined to football. “You can roll this model out to anything, art, or writing, it doesn’t have to be sport.”

She says that mental health problems are often treated solely as a medical issue, whereas she sees it from a social point of view as well. “It’s about interaction and talking about things as well as playing sport, it’s not about sitting in a room being analysed. It’s about setting achievable goals and saying to them they have got a future and there is hope and saying ‘yes, you can do it with the right guidance and support.’”