Page last updated at 09:19 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 10:19 UK

Football therapy - for the mentally ill

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Peter and David Smith
Peter and David both feel they have benefited

When Peter Smith was a young boy he was obsessed with football.

He would play every lunchtime at school and any other time he got the chance.

But when he hit the age of 19 he and his identical twin David were both diagnosed with mental health problems - both with bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression.

They were frequently in and out treatment, and Peter found himself becoming more and more reclusive.

Became reclusive

"I spent almost a decade going in and out of hospital due to smoking cannabis and not really coming to terms with my mental illness or even trying to manage it.

"I was not going out, not socialising, just staying in."

This has helped me turn my life around and to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel
Peter Smith

But six years ago, Peter got involved with his local team Hackney FC - set up specifically for mental health patients by occupational therapist Janette Hynes, herself an ex-professional footballer.

She then set up her own league - the Positive Mental Action league - and now has 21 teams across London. She now hopes to branch out across the country.

Peter, who started first as a player, then became team captain and manager, is now a coach and mentor. He says the scheme has transformed his life, and that of his twin who also became involved.

"It helped me make friends and was a catalyst to make me more aware of my self-management, I gave up smoking cannabis and cigarettes and became more focussed in what I was doing. I was able to contribute in the way I wanted.

"My illness put stress on the family and friends. My brother and I both have children and we wanted to do more give support them, but we had the stigma and discrimination to cope with.

"This has helped me turn my life around and to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel and give me hope. It has also put me in the position to give others hope.

Health benefits

Janette said she had originally come up with the idea of their own league so that they could field both male and female players - unlike the FA.

Players are recruited through local hospitals, community groups and hostels and she said the benefits were soon apparent.

"I worked in the gyms helping people and I saw a need.

"Where could people go? People say go into the community, but where can they go. they sit in and have no social network to keep them well," she said.

Depressed man: Pic: Cordelia Molloy/SPL
Players have shown big healthimprovements

When 15 members of Hackney FC were questioned after 10 months in the team, they reported significant improvements in their health.

Three quarters reported being able to reduce their medication after taking part in the course, the same proportion said they had a better social and family life and that they had gone on to get jobs or do further courses, like Peter.

People also reported other fringe benefits such as better general health and reduced weight and smoking.

Expansion plans

Janette, who recently won the the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement and the Department of Health's 'Health and Social Care Award for Leadership for Improvement' said she was delighted by players' improvements.

"They go out more and are more social.

"They talk to each other and are really proud of the league."

There are now plans to expand the scheme to the under 18s to help prevent them becoming isolated.

Neil Tinning, from the MDF Bi-Polar Organisation said schemes like this were a fantastic way of promoting health and keeping the mentally ill as well as possible.

"From my view point the PMA League is an excellent concept.

"Being bipolar I understand the issues sufferers face. Supported environments provide the much needed bridge between ill health and recovery.

"The sports element enhances the positive effect of physical well being.

"When you are ill, you feel very isolated. However, teamwork inspires camaraderie, and this helps you understand you're not the only one," he said.

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