A Softball Perspective on World Mental Health Day

Wed 10 Oct 2018

One in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem in any given year, and it is inevitable that all of us know someone affected by mental illness.

October 10 was World Mental Health Day, designed to raise awareness around mental health and how it can affect people in schools, universities, workplaces and every other aspect of their lives.  The specific theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day was “Young People”, and that put into focus the beneficial effect that sport and physical activity can play in fostering mental health and wellbeing.

The mental health benefits of sport and exercise are well-known, as are the social and emotional benefits of making friends and connecting with people through sport, having fun and challenging stigma and discrimination.

All of these benefits emerge in the two moving blogs below, written by Sophie and Nic, members of the London Raiders Softball Club.  Raiders is the largest co-ed slowpitch club in the UK, and has offered a welcoming and inclusive environment for many years for all softballers and particularly for members of the LGBT+ community.

The numbers say it all and prove why team sports can be so beneficial for this community, which is represented within British softball at a rate approximately twice that of the general population:

  • 21% of people who identify as LGBT+ experience mental health issues versus 5% who don't.
  • 52% of young LGBT+ people self-harm versus 25% of heterosexual non-transgender young people.
  • 44% of young LGBT+ people have considered suicide versus 26% of heterosexual non-trans young people.

Now read the blogs.

 

SOPHIE:
Coming back swinging:
how rediscovering team sports helped me build better mental health as an adult

I grew up in the 80s and 90s.  My parents made good money, I went to a good school and lived in a nice home.  I had lots of friends, I didn’t struggle in class and I was good at sports.  On paper, I wouldn’t be described as an obvious candidate for mental health issues like anxiety or depression.

But what that picture leaves out is that I was also struggling to accept who I was as a person.  I realised I was gay at quite an early age, and though I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that myself, I knew that being open about it would cause problems.  Section 28 was still in full effect, meaning none of my teachers ever approached the subject of LGBT people or the issues they might be going through.  Gay taunts were commonplace, both in school and out, and my family never spoke about such things except when joking. 

I was always a total tomboy and there wasn’t much I could do to hide that part of myself. Though, while people weren’t putting two and two together with regards to my sexuality, there was a lot of teasing about the way I looked, which made me want to disappear.  I had plenty of friends, but because of my differences – I didn’t talk about boys or make-up – I always felt on the outside of my peer groups.

As I grew into my teens, a time when sport would have been a great release and mental leveller, I felt less and less like taking part, despite always being ‘sporty’.  Physically, this affected my weight, which added to the mental issues I was starting to experience as a result of my withdrawal and lack of exercise.

By the time I was 18, I had already experienced a good amount of depression and, at various points in my life since, I’ve also experienced anxiety.  This has undoubtedly affected my quality of life.

I’ve worked through my issues with therapists and am seeing one at the moment, which has been really great in terms of finally coming to terms with the origins of these issues.  But the biggest and best changes have come from my decision to begin participating in sports again.  Without doubt, the best mental health I have experienced so far has been during times when I’ve been regularly playing team sports.


Taking the plunge

I first dipped my toe back into this murky pool – by entering an actual pool. 

A friend had told me about a water polo team that was LGBT-friendly and I found myself getting really excited about the idea of giving it a try.  Sports had always meant feeling out of place as a kid, but I’d always loved swimming and I thought to myself that maybe this time, with a group of people just like me, it might be better.  Despite my nerves, I gave it a decent shot and instantly fell in love with it.  I’ve since competed internationally with my team and made some lifelong friends to boot -- the kind you don’t make in bars or online.


A major league setback

This year, I suffered a setback with my mental health after a lengthy redundancy process highlighted that my resilience wasn't as strong as I'd thought it was.  I started to worry about inconsequential things, experienced insomnia, was often irritable and had a lot of panic attacks, all of which eventually contributed to the end of my relationship. That broke my heart and really made me stop and think about how I could change things for the better. I thought back to when my mind was in better shape and the connections between sport and stability were so clear.  I realised that in that past year I’d stopped showing up for practice and hadn’t been exercising.  At the time, I put finding a job as a priority, but I kicked myself for letting such an important part of my life slip.  These things tend to happen without you realising, and depression for me tends to strike out of the blue.  There weren’t many warning signs and there is still such a stigma around it, I wasn’t talking to anyone about how I was feeling.

As well as seeing a therapist, I was determined to get back into sports and I found myself hungry for a new challenge.  Again, a friend recommended I give softball a try and specifically, the London Raiders Softball Club.  I can honestly say it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.  Water polo made me fitter, I must admit, but the sense of community and support from this particular club is, in my opinion, second to none.  I know that it’s continuing to positively impact my mental health, which is better than it’s been since I can remember.


Knock-on benefits

I’m sure that most people know about the benefits of exercise on mental health; it’s well documented.  To me, it felt strange at first to think that something as simple as a 20-minute jog can affect how you view the world, and how you feel about yourself, but it really does.  I’ve come to realise that, just as the body needs exercise, so does the mind.  Probably more so.

But if you’re looking to build more mental resilience, my advice is to pick a team sport over a jog in the park once or twice a week.  I feel great after a run, but when you’re playing sport with others, you’re not thinking about how fast you’re running, or how long it’ll be before you can stop and rest.  You don’t think about anything other than getting the ball where it needs to be.  It’s total focus.  Your mind loves focus.  And when you’re all working together towards the same goal, that gives you something else, too; an instant, genuine connection with people.

At the age of 40, I’m finding I’m just getting started with all the cool stuff I should have done in my teens, plus I get a whole community of people to do it with too.  Better late than never, eh?

 

NIC D:
This is why I play softball….

“Why do you do it?”

“Can’t he just snap out of it?”

“The problem is not real unless he wants it to be real.”

“It’s all in his head.”

“I don’t know enough about his condition, but I am going to give you my ‘two cents’ about it anyway.”

These are just some of the comments I have heard over the past few years from family members, ‘friends’ and even ex-partners on why I do what I do.

I am writing this from the perspective of someone who cares for another, a carer.

I am a carer for someone who suffers from a severe form of ADHD, someone who features high on the autism spectrum and struggles with social anxiety.  However, if you look at him and sit down and get to know him better, he would often appear to be someone society considers ‘normal’.  So the comments made to me on numerous occasions show how mental disabilities are not really understood by very many people.

Severe ADHD is a lifelong debilitating condition, somewhat managed by medication.  But since it is not truly understood and can often be unseen, it can be draining, heart-wrenching and depressing having to defend what I do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. 

I am not a trained carer and I don’t get additional support, but I do what I do because I care.  That said, it is exhausting and completely drains me as a person, never knowing what mood my charge is going to be in.  I can be a punching bag if he is in a bad mood and needs to vent, or a shoulder to cry on when it becomes too much for him to handle and he needs relief.

But on good days, I see glimmers of the person he used to be -- which in itself can sometimes be sad for me.  There is too much for one person to cope with, as I struggled to disassociate from the situation to protect my own mental wellbeing.  My relationship and potential relationships as someone who identifies as being gay have taken a knock, either from not being emotionally or physically available.  I have found myself becoming socially awkward, sometimes finding it difficult to find a common ground or topic or just common banter when trying to have a conversation, even with people who are close to me, friends who have known me the longest.  It came to a point where things had to change.  I had to change.

I needed an escape, I needed to distance myself, even if it was just for a few hours a week or just over a weekend.  Just to have ME time.  Who knew running around like a ‘headless chicken’ after a bright yellow ball would allow me to have this precious time to myself?  This was how I found softball.

My teammates didn’t need to know what I do; they just needed to be there, as that was what teammates are for.  When a mistake was made, laughing and/or making a joke about it is part and parcel of many teams I have seen play and played against.  This support that I have received from so many people has been and is still so beneficial to me and my own mental wellbeing.

It gave me the push I needed to continue doing what I currently do now, knowing that the support given (even indirectly and unknowingly) gives me the strength to persevere through what could be a dark and bleak journey supporting someone, never knowing what their mood will be, never knowing the state of mind I will be in after leaving them, having ensured that they are okay and having absorbed any negativity just to try to make them feel a little better, a little more ‘human’, though it could be just for a matter of seconds or minutes but hopefully for hours, days or weeks.

I still do what I do because I care.  I am still socially awkward, but the support I have received over the past years has helped me to somewhat overcome this.  It hasn’t fixed the problem, but it has somewhat alleviated the situation.

This is why I play softball.


For more information and support about mental health, please visit the Time to Change website.

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