The new Mental Health Ambassador programme, launched on Tuesday by England Athletics and supported by the charity Mind, has recruited 128 people – of whom I am one – from 91 affiliated athletics clubs across the country, to do a bit of running and talking. This volunteer programme links to #runandtalk, a campaign to improve mental health through running in England.
As one who self-prescribed a regular jog to alleviate mid-life blues and turned into an athletics evangelist, I can run with that. The talking part shouldn’t be a problem. As a coach, I’ve found that keeping up a constant chatter as your feet patter helps you gauge your companions’ breathing (as a rule of thumb, a curt one-word answer, often accompanied by a death stare, signals a certain level of discomfort).
Just running out with friends on a weekend morning, chat becomes therapeutic. There’s something about the rhythm of the feet, the looking ahead, not at your confidante, while banging on about the week’s troubles and triumphs, that helps the conversation to open up. We joke that we’re putting the world to rights, but often we’re simply splurging out all our preoccupations as we jog along.
Of course, you don’t have to always say what’s on your mind. Going out for a run on your own has its own head-clearing benefits, and exercise generally is a proven remedy for anxiety and stress. NHS Choices website has exercise alongside cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling as a proven, effective alternative to antidepressants.
All of which is testament to the well-documented fact that running is good for mental health, as Clare Allan put it rather wonderfully, it’s a “most brilliant way of showing the mind who’s boss”, but the challenge here is taking the first steps.
When you’re ill, just getting started – stepping out of the front door – is a mountainous challenge. So England Athletics Mental Health Ambassadors will have to be more than just a chirpy, tracksuited running coaches hanging out at the track waiting for new recruits in search of a life-changing endorphin rush. It will mean getting a handle on how mental illness and associated feelings of low self-esteem, low energy, lack of confidence and isolation create barriers, preventing sufferers from doing what they know is good for them.
So the ambassadors, too, will have a challenge ahead, working with local Mind community mental health groups, along with their own athletics club, and having the two meet halfway. They will also be required to create a mental health action plan for their club, starting conversations about mental health and building a support network for its members. For those whose only encounter with the Victorian ideal of mens sana in corpore sano (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”) is via a well-known sports apparel manufacturer, this may be a few steps out of the comfort zone, to say the least.
Nonetheless, I’m game. My love affair with running started as an attempt to sort out my head, as well as my middle-aged spread. It worked for me and I would like to share the love, with a little help from England Athletics, who as signatory to the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation, has vowed to “tackle the stigma that surrounds mental health and help people seek support when needed”.
Ambassadors like me will be helped in this admirable mission to forge links between community mental health services and organisations and affiliated clubs to make the running-as-therapy theory a reality for everyone.
Article by: the guardian