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How London’s football fans are fighting back against depression

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50.  But can football forums provide an avenue for men to talk about their mental health?

Photo: Wonker

Photo: Wonker

It has almost become a cliché, comparing football to a religion. Stadiums are built bigger than the largest cathedrals, and still fill each week. Fans, like pilgrims, travel thousands of miles to see their teams play. And many clubs, overwhelmed by requests to scatter ashes, have been forced to build memorial gardens, to prevent damage to their playing surface.

While this comparison maybe somewhat tenuous, football is clearly more than a game to many of its followers. According to the UK charity, The Mental Health Foundation, football can have a major impact on mental health. It is thought to affect emotions, relationships, identity and self-esteem. In a recent study, one in four fans said football was one of the most important things in their lives. But can it play a role in fighting mental illness?

This video investigates what Crystal Palace fans at Selhurst Park thought:

Jamie Penfold is 38, he’s a lifelong West Ham supporter who runs his own events photography company. Last November, he went to see his GP after having spent a “long time in a very dark place”. He knew he was ill, but had been “too ashamed and embarrassed” to see the doctor. Four days later, he went online and read about people going through similar experiences on a forum. He posted “I don’t get on KUMB as often as I used to or as often as I’d like, but I’m so pleased I got on here today… Reading this thread is a massive comfort. Knowing you’re not the only one with battles, takes away the stigma somewhat” Geordie Hammer.

KUMB.com is a website managed by supporters of West Ham United. The name is an acronym of Knees up Mother Brown, a song once popular with travelling fans. They run news, forums and podcasts offering “a fans’ perspective on current affairs at the club”. But at the start of this season, Rare as rockinghorse shat (Rars) began a different kind of discussion, posting: “After a period of happiness and good surroundings; moving in with the missus, being in love, work going well and such, things started to dip again… I feel like a negative blanket is covering everything I seem to do.” As the Premier League draws to a close, the thread “Can you be depressed and not know it?” has counted nearly 300 posts.

While a growing number of women watch football, the latest figures released by the Barkley’s Premier League say three quarters of people who attend games are men. At the same time, research indicates that men find it difficult to seek help when struggling with mental health issues. A study of 18 to 24 year olds in Bristol showed less than 18 per cent of men experiencing suicidal thoughts looked to friends and family for support, yet over per 30 cent of women did. So the idea a football forum could open an avenue for discussion is an exciting one.

Suicide by Gender

Over the next three months Rars documented his journey. He posted about his symptoms, doctors’ appointments and medication, to which he received ongoing messages of support. His posts also encouraged others to voice similar problems: “It has been very reassuring and supportive reading this. So it has been surprising that I have come across this thread yet ignored the warning signs myself.” Wrote We’ll be back.

Dr Gemma Lewis is a researcher and lecturer at UCL’s Division of Psychiatry. Her main research interests are the causes, prevention, and treatment of depression but she is currently investigating the effectiveness of antidepressants: She was surprised to hear about this thread, but was sure it could be a positive force for those using it: “There are theories one of the reason suicide rates are higher in men is that they are worse at treatment seeking, help seeking and discussing, this could be helping address that.”

Doctors and psychologists usually lead therapeutic interventions, although there are a number of academics looking at the role of ordinary people in supporting victims of mental illness. Professor Vikram Patel, based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has done research in India, which shows people with very little training can offer effective support to those suffering mental health problems. Dr Lewis says his research shows that with limited training, anyone can offer relief to people with mental illness, particularly anxiety.

Jamie’s experience echoes this research; he says he saw the forum as the first stage of his counselling. “By the time I’d started 1-2-1 sessions in January I felt I was a long way through the process.  I’d talked about this with my counselor and he thought it was a great way to support me in my treatment. Sharing experiences and talking openly is a positive step.  I’ve learnt that the stigma is just as dangerous as the illness.  I had bad days – which I’d mention on there and you’d get responses giving encouragement and advice. You know you’re not alone.”

Dr Lewis believes there are large numbers of people, like Jamie who suffer for a long time without seeking help, in many cases, she says they never do. “There’s evidence from surveys that the majority of people with depression living in the community do not present to their GP or to any kind of service, therefore the majority of people with depression do not receive treatment”

This thread demonstrates how many people live in unhappiness without realising that something may be wrong.  “I was amazed when I saw that scale of people suffering.” Jamie says. Many London clubs have similar websites and many have similar threads. Discussion of mental health was occurring on fan pages for Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Tottenham, and there may be many more.

Jamie says the past five months have been a journey. But things are going really well:”My friends and family are all noticing the difference in me. I’m a lot happier and a lot calmer.  I have a more positive outlook on life. ..The knock on effect with my wife and kids has been amazing.” He says football played such an important role because it gives men common ground to break the ice.

Jamie’s advice to anyone going through similar issues is simple: “Talk – I probably left it way too late and caused too much damage before realising that I had to seek help.”

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