I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of emotional release out there on the terraces or in the stands of Top Field. Whatever stresses we’re facing at work or home, we turn up to cheer on the team, do our best to put off the opposition, and maybe even politely(!) express to the match officials that we disagree with their decision. It’s probably the only place where grown adults can freely shout and cheer until we run the risk of rupturing a vocal cord. But at the end of 90 minutes, even if we’re hoarse from the shouting, even if we’ve lost, we usually feel that little bit lighter inside; that little bit better for having been to the game and let off some steam.

The stresses in our life (be they financial, relational, job-related or anything else) can cause what feels like pressure to build inside us: cheering on the Canaries is like a release valve, letting out some of that pressure and helping us to cope with life.

But the stands at Top Field and around the country have been empty or mostly empty for a long time now. Which means football fans haven’t had that release. It’s little wonder, then, that in studies nearly a third of football fans have reported that the loss of football has affected their mental health. It’s not just about the cathartic release of pressure, either: for many, going to the game is where their socialising happens. It gives people a sense of community, even identity.

During the pandemic, as well as the loss of football, people have experienced isolation, uncertainty, boredom, and worry…all of which have contributed to a massive rise in mental ill health across all age groups. It probably comes as no surprise to you that statistics are showing the pandemic has been hard on people’s mental health: it’s something we’ve all seen in others or experienced for ourselves. In my role as a priest during this pandemic I’ve certainly seen it: I’ve spoken to people having panic attacks, I’ve listened as people have talked about the damaging effect of lockdown on their relationships, and both myself and many of my colleagues have conducted funerals for people who have taken their own lives. I’ve experienced it too: anxiety near the beginning, and in more recent weeks this last, long lockdown has left me feeling lethargic and irritable (two common symptoms of depression).

Our country seems to be heading in the right direction at last, with the lockdown easing (and HTFC already have some friendlies scheduled for the summer!), but our mental health has come under such pressure in the last year that it will take some time for many of us to recover, and we might need support in that process.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and in these challenging times it’s an important week for all of us, whether we currently suffer from mental ill health or not. It’s important for us, as part of a football club family, to be aware of our own mental health and also the mental health of our fellow supporters.

When it comes to mental health I’m by no means a professional, or even a semi-pro. But I have a bit of experience: I suffered from depression during my 20s, and last year I trained as a Mental Health First Aider. I know from those experiences that there are lots of practical things we can do to look after our own mental health and to support one another.

The most basic – perhaps the most important – thing we can do is TALK. People are often afraid to start talking about how they feel. There’s still sometimes that bit of fear of speaking about mental ill health. And I’ve heard people say things like “I’m just making a fuss” or “I should pull myself together”. But, actually, talking about our experiences with somebody we trust can make a massive difference. Talking honestly to someone is another one of the ways we can release that build-up of pressure in our lives. So, if you’re feeling the strain reach out to somebody: a friend, a family member, a fellow supporter, or even the club chaplain (that’s what I’m here for!).

And of course, the other side of ‘talk’ is LISTEN. If you speak to somebody who is struggling, listening carefully and non-judgmentally can be a huge help to them. It’s not your job to come up with wise answers or solutions to people’s problems. But anyone can listen, can take the time to hear what a person has to say and gently ask a few questions.

As I’ve said, some people are afraid to start talking, so before you can listen, you might have to ASK. I don’t know about you, but when I arrive at a game (or anywhere where I’m meeting people), the first thing I ask is ‘how’s it going?’ To which the response is usually ‘yeah fine’, with maybe a jokey comment about being glad to escape the husband/wife/kids/dog for a bit. So, my challenge to all of us is to ask twice. In other words, to ask again ‘how are you really?’ They might really be fine, and then I might feel a bit silly. But you know what, I’d rather look silly and give somebody an opportunity to be honest about how they feel, than avoid looking silly and possibly lose a friend to suicide.

Most of us aren’t medical professionals, so we need to know our limits when talking to people: sometimes caring for each other means we POINT people towards professional or specialised help. I always encourage people to speak to their GP as a first point of contact, just as they would if they had physical health concerns. And there are lots of good mental health organisations out there, like Mind and Samaritans, that you can point people towards.

There are lots of other things we can do for our own mental health, or encourage others to do for theirs. As well as being chaplain at HTFC, I’m a governor at Oughton School and they teach the kids there something called the ‘Five Ways to Well-being’. That’s not just something for primary school kids: it’s a really useful tool to help all of us stay mentally healthy! The five ways are:

  • CONNECT: which is where the talking and listening comes in!
  • BE ACTIVE: because physical activity – even slow-paced activity like walking – helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • TAKE NOTICE: in other words, try to be aware of what is taking place in the present, and savour ‘the moment’ (which might be as simple a moment as enjoying your sandwich at lunchtime!). Studies have shown that doing this can help you with self-understanding and to make positive choices based on your values and priorities.
  • LEARN: learning, whether that’s something big like how to play an instrument or something small like watching a documentary, can boost self-esteem and encourage social interaction and a more active life.
  • GIVE: sometimes it helps to take the focus off ourselves and make a positive difference to others. Again, studies have shown that those who help others in some way are more likely to feel happy. Maybe you can volunteer locally, or challenge yourself to do an act of kindness every week?

I can’t wait to be back in the terrace, behind the goal, at Top Field. I’ve missed the chance to cheer and shout. Going to games might put a strain on my vocal cords, but it’s great for my mental health. Life has been that bit harder without it. So in this Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s all take some time to think about mental health. About how we can look after our own mental health, and how we can be supporters not just of the team on the pitch, but of our fellow fans as well.

If you would like some helpful information about mental health problems and how to cope/support others, then I recommend taking a look at https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support.

As always, if you’d like a confidential chat, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at nick.smith@stmarks-hitchin.org.uk.