My name is Paul. I’ve been a Mental Health Practitioner for over 13 years. I started out as a Support Worker, for a charity that I still work for. I live in Bolton, work in Blackburn and follow Northampton Town up and down this politically and socially divided country of ours.
Blackburn itself is a borough that has the highest percentage of people with mental health problems in England and the work we do is providing much needed respite for a number of its residents, as well as offering a pathway to recovery that isn’t reliant on the more conventional methods of support.
I am thankful that I work within a team of people who are not afraid to do things differently; who believe in the people they support and who challenge the status quo to improve future provision.
With this ‘freedom’ of working we can also engage with people who wouldn’t necessarily become involved with services, due to the perceived stigma attached to such involvement. And this is where the idea of using football as a therapy first saw the light of day.
It started with just six lads having a kick-about back at the tail-end of 2009. The league has been operating to capacity for many months, with a whole raft of teams waiting patiently in the wings to join and start their own journeys.
So, once a month, 14 teams from a variety of organisations descend on the Blackburn Rovers Indoor Centre to play the beautiful game and walk away with new friends, new found confidence and sometimes, the occasional sleepless night as we relive that Cruyff turn or the shot that leaves the keeper stranded as onlookers roar their approval. It’s priceless.
The results are proof that putting service user’s needs and preferences first is fundamental to promoting wellbeing and independence.
Today, we are just a few weeks away from the start of the new Social Inclusion Football League season featuring 28 teams from all over the North West.
The range of organisations taking part further cements the importance of the league and its forward thinking. Teams represent organisations supporting people with a variety of needs including mental health, homelessness, drug & alcohol and learning difficulties. As one team manager put it…”There is no stigma on match days. We are just like everyone else – footballers”.
We should, regardless of economic or political climate, embrace and support the things that work. This works and it makes a difference. We have seen many, many people participate in the league who have gone on to enjoy voluntary work, full-time employment and further education.
There is also the clear benefits to physical and mental health, self-esteem and confidence. But perhaps more importantly, having learnt from their own experiences, players have become mentors…peer supporters. The most qualified people to support those who have found themselves in similar situations.
Our own team, Blackburn Brasilia (that's us in the photo - I'm third from the right), will begin the new season as a peer-led outfit. Half the squad are now in employment and book days off to compete. The league, the camaraderie and new found confidence has, without a doubt, contributed to this and there is one thing we are adamant about. If you move into full-time employment or education, the door is always open, because the friendships and support networks that have been made are real and they're permanent.
It’s a community that has gone from strength to strength with brilliant backing from the Blackburn Rovers Community Trust and the recent award of significant funding will go towards doubling the capacity of the League to enable all those yet to experience it an opportunity to join their peers in raising their own expectations, belief and hope. The funding will also be used to invest in individual teams and provide a range of free training, such as Level 1 coaching and refereeing, peer support and volunteering.
Football is not everyone’s cup of tea I know, but the principles behind the league provides a template that can be used for any form of engagement with the intention of improving people’s lives through encouragement, hope and a sense of belonging that ultimately triggers new found aspirations.
I think you'll agree, Paul's story is an incredibly inspirational one and a template that so many other areas can copy to raise hopes in their own communities. Here at Men Tell, we are proud to call them our friends and we look forward to working with them more closely in the future.