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Mental Health United

Ayrshire College is using football to support people with mental health problems in the area

Mental Health United was started five years ago, the idea came from the college students who were the main attendees initially but it has grown since. The idea was to use the sessions to give participants the physical, mental and social benefits of sport while also providing a safe space and an opportunity for them to talk about how they are feeling.

Every week there is two 30-minute football sessions in a fun and supportive environment delivered by the College’s Sport and Fitness Lecturer, David Dougan. In between the football there is a 15-minute team talk which is facilitated by Steven Fegan, a Councillor with The Samaritans and Richard Hughes, a Mental Health Lecturer within the Health and Social Care department.

The impact has been significant, Steven explained: “The difference can be notable week on week. There’s normally an increase in engagement with the team talk the longer someone comes. But more than that we can see conversations happening between participants, before, during and after the session.

“We’ve helped people who have moved to Scotland from another country who are tackling feelings of isolation. We have people from so many different backgrounds and have been able to create a safe environment for everyone that is inclusive and respectful.”

Mental Health United sits within the Ayrshire College Community Sports Hub, which is part of the national sportscotland community sport hub network and funded by the National Lottery. The CSH network brings sports clubs and community organisations together to improve the contribution sport and physical activity has within communities across Scotland.

The CSH and Hub Officer, Greg Gallagher, were heavily involved in establishing the programme, creating the key partnerships required and promoting it. 

Greg, a Team Coordinator for East Ayrshire Council, said: “Ayrshire College Community Sports Hub and Mental Health United are partnering to tackle men's mental health.

"Mental Health United is more than just football; it's a safe space for men to discuss the challenges they face and find support through professional guidance and mentorship.

“Attendances have grown in such a short period of time, this is down to the team delivering and participants who create the positive impact of teamwork on and off the pitch. I can't wait to see what the future holds for the club"

The membership is a broad demographic, from 17 to 58 years old, members include people who are long term unemployed, school pupils, college staff and people with addiction challenges.

Attendees have been referred to Mental Health United by a wide range of organisations in the area including the police, East Ayrshire Recovery Hub and Street League.

The project is also supported by the Kris Boyd Charity and guest speakers at various times have included former professional footballers Andy McLaren, Garry Hay, Simon Donnelly and Kris Boyd.

David Dougan has been able to see the confidence of the participants growing every week. He said: “It has been a massive success. The number of people regularly showing up is amazing and each person who attends enjoys the competitive nature of the football and the camaraderie we have.

“The physical benefits are obvious, as each person has been improving their cardio-respiratory health and burning calories, which can help weight control.
“But more than that there is a real feel-good factor about the group, everyone wants to be there. Longer term this can lead to increased self-confidence, better mood, reduced depressive feelings, decreased stress and better mental health.

“It helps them feel part of a team and gives a sense of belonging, which is a powerful tool to improve wellbeing, as it can improve the self-worth of a person.”

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