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We Can Address Mental Health Issue at Universities Through Exercise

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Universities can provide an inclusive environment for those experiencing mental health issues to engage in sport and physical activity and provide ‘real world’ opportunities for students to enhance their personal and professional development.

To allow current and the next generation of students to reach their full potential, universities need to be aware of the growing concern about the mental health of students. As well as having a responsibility with regards to the well-being of their students, universities also have a health-promoting role to play within the local community that they serve.

There is a wealth of evidence to support the benefits of physical activity on mental health and well-being. However, more examples of best practice and case studies are needed to demonstrate how exercise-based interventions can improve the mental health and well-being of particular groups.

A team of exercise professionals delivered four exercise-based interventions that were designed for people with mental health issues at York St John University. 

These interventions have demonstrated that student volunteers are an important ‘resource’ that universities can use to help support people with mental health issues. Such volunteering can also present an important learning opportunity for the students involved.

The team

YSJActive are a team of dedicated exercise professionals who specialise in sport, exercise and well-being. YSJActive aims to be an example of best practice for community engagement and inclusive physical activity, while being recognised as an excellent student placement provider.

The YSJActive Team are situated within the School of Sport, which is the only one in the world founded upon ‘social justice, the right to play, putting the performer before the performance, a focus on the healthy athlete, stressing participation over consumerism and holding to account those who seek elitism rather than sporting excellence.’ This approach puts values at the centre of how we teach, research and practise sport.

We have used the ethos of YSJActive and the School of Sport to create an extensive portfolio of opportunities specifically designed to improve the health and well-being of participants with various mental health issues, including: ‘Healthy Body, Healthy Mind’; ‘Exercise for Well-being’; ‘Discover Physical Activity’; and, ‘Healthy Mind, Healthy Body’.

Programme 1: Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind (HBHM) is a community-based physical activity course, which caters for adult students of the award-winning Converge. Since the successful inaugural HBHM back in 2013, we have been delivering two 12-week programmes every year. Typically, this has consisted of a different sporting theme each week to cater for all individual needs from your traditional sports to the more obscure like Kabaddi. My personal favourite was a random combination of netball, basketball and dodgeball (I would copyright it, but I can’t think of a catchy title).

Converge provides educational opportunities for members of the local community with mental health issues. Traditionally, they have focused on the arts, but have explored other opportunities, such as sport and exercise. Although part of the University, Converge is self-sufficient and through funding from the NHS they are able to commission YSJActive to deliver HBHM.

York St John University has invested £10m in a state of the art sports facility, which features an indoor sports hall, 3G pitches, various outdoor pitches and a social space. HBHM sessions are all facilitated here with a mix of indoor and outdoor sports catering for all abilities.

I usually plan the first session, which includes some fun icebreakers with the aim of ensuring that everyone is relaxed as possible so that they can enjoy and get the most out of the experience. Thereafter, I encourage the participants to consider what sports they would like to do the following week and where appropriate I encourage them to lead parts of a session. This is very much down to individual confidence levels though. Sometimes, the biggest challenge for participants is attending the sessions.

When delivering these sessions, I think it is important to be able to think on your feet, which comes from experience. I very rarely have a strict lesson plan, more just a few ideas. I think this approach works well for me and reflects my personality. However, this approach isn’t for everyone, so my advice would be to establish your own identity. Always have some form of plan B, as sometimes you have to change a session quickly, especially if something is not working.

Programme 2: Exercise for Well-being

Exercise for Wellbeing is a 12-week gym-based programme specifically designed for students who access student services for mild to moderate mental health issues, such as anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.

Student Services commission YSJActive to deliver Exercise for Wellbeing. While the programme is group-based, the programme caters for individual needs. The first session is a standard induction, so that the participants are familiar with the equipment and the exercises. Soon, participants are given the option of whether they would like to do a group-based circuit or work towards individual goals.

For most programmes this usually ends up being a combination, and I will sometimes add in workshops, to focus on a particular complex movement, such as the deadlift. This is very much participant-led. If participants are working more towards their individual goals, they will all, over the course of the programme, be given a personalised programme.

Even if they are doing a group-based circuit, the exercises will be adapted to meet individual needs, such as capability and goals. For example, rep ranges might be different. And as with all programmes, ongoing feedback will be sought and changes made accordingly.

Programme 3: Discover Physical Activity

Discover Physical Activity is an 8-week programme of physical activity and education that aims to reconnect adults experiencing mental health issues with sport and physical activity. Participants are given the opportunity to complete a nationally recognised Level 1 qualification, which in turn enhances employability and hopefully empowers participants to make informed healthier lifestyle changes.

The sessions are a combination of sport-based (similar to HBHM) and exercise-based (similar to Exercise for Well-being).

Programme 4: Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

Healthy Mind Healthy Body is a 10-session programme for those seeking to improve the sense of physical and mental well-being. It is a collaboration between YSJ Counselling and Mental Health Clinic and YSJActive.

The programme offers a range of physical activity, including circuits and exercise routines (10 group sessions), alongside coaching (10 individual sessions with a coach), to provide a developmental and positive approach to building self-esteem and confidence. Physical activity generates a sense of well-being, which, when combined with positive life coaching, can boost mental health and sense of happiness.

In the future, we will be exploring research opportunities and on a more personal level, I am hoping to start a PhD, which will be themed on exercise, cognition and mental health.

Student volunteers

All the above programmes are supported by student volunteers from all degree programmes offering a diverse mix of skills, knowledge and expertise. This allows the students to gain ‘real world experience’ and an opportunity to develop their personal and professional development and in turn provide a worthwhile service to the local community. By utilising student volunteers, we can develop the next generation of practitioners, which is beneficial to all concerned.

There are growing concerns regarding the mental health and welfare of students. By allowing students the opportunity to get involved with these projects, it helps them to have a better understanding of their own mental health and well-being. In turn, this will help to break down the negative stigma often associated with mental health.

Improving mental health of students

A university can be at the heart of the local community by providing opportunities for those experiencing mental health issues to participate in sport and physical activity within a ‘safe’ environment, while providing excellent placement opportunities.

Indeed, exercise is one the cheapest way to improve mental health and well-being. There are plenty of opportunities available; your local authority or GP are normally good places to start and they should be able to support you in finding opportunities that meet your needs. You can also check this list of mental health charitiesThe most important thing to do is not suffer in silence.

Image credit: Freepik

Martin Bond has around 20 years of experience of working with people with mental health issues, including working at two psychiatric hospitals in a variety of roles. 

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