MENTAL HEALTH FIRST AID IN RUGBY

By David Wilkinson

The restrictions on our lives imposed by the second lockdown will have been a daunting prospect for many people. The adolescence years are particularly at risk with multiple physical, emotional and social changes taking place; factor in the lack of sport, a release mechanism for many young people, and it becomes obvious just why these are worrying times for many. Mental wellbeing is a topic that had been on the agenda for some time at Macclesfield Rugby Club, and just over 12 months ago the Club decided to embark on some specialist training. Liz Jarrett, Hayley Marshall and Amanda Keogh attended a two day Mental Health First Aid training course, funded by Club sponsor MoneyGuru.com; the aim of the course being to train people to sign-post young individuals on a passageway to get expert help. Liz Jarrett is also involved with locally based charity LooseHeadz: “I’m part of what they call the Academy; and there are about a hundred up and down the country, our role is to try and build a network within our clubs to identify where there might be a problem”.

LooseHeadz is a rugby centric mental health charity, started by three rugby players from Wilmslow Rugby Club in 2017. Like many seemingly good ideas, emanating from rugby clubs, the idea came from a chat in the bar after a game, over a beer or two; now LooseHeadz has grown into a national charity under the slogan of: ‘Tackle the Stigma’. Several Sale Sharks players act as their Brand Ambassadors promoting their clothing brand, with 100% of the profits being passed on to charities such as MIND.

Liz Jarrett went on to say that as part of the Academy they talk to each other: “If someone’s having a bad day we try to pick them up, it’s trying to build that network in clubs across the country, that’s the idea. As Macclesfield is a Pilot Club we also get some financial support”. On the question of how the process starts Liz said that the hardest thing is getting someone to admit that they have a problem: “If they can accept that they have a problem or ask for help, then that’s a lot easier, you can then sign-post them (refer them in the right direction) or sometimes help them there and then. The problem with many younger men and teenagers is that they don’t necessarily see what’s going on around them; they are almost on a path of self-destruction; they need people looking after them and asking: ‘are you OK?’ and looking out for changes in their behaviour”. Liz went on to say that thankfully there are a lot of charities out there providing support. One such charity is Give A Ruck, who, once out of Lockdown have offered to hold a session with all coaches at Macc Rugby Club to help them to identify signals and triggers in players, and to guide them with what the right things to do are, in these circumstances. Liz saying: “This will give us some accreditation and will build another link for the Club”.

Give A Ruck was developed to help players, club members, volunteers and coaches to feel more comfortable, and to talk openly and honestly about their mental health and wellbeing. Much like LooseHeadz it was inspired by players who had the strength and courage to speak out. They now hope that Give A Ruck will help to inspire many others to do the same. 

It’s without doubt that mental health problems within the young are exacerbated during these strange times. Liz had experienced a number of problems with young teenagers during the previous Lockdown period; whilst the stresses of schooling and growing-up continue the release mechanisms just aren’t there, the result is a build-up of anxiety, that at times can boil over: “They need a support network around them and the Rugby Club provides that stability, teamwork and camaraderie around them; and it’s the caterers as well, the caterers have known many of them since they were tiny, and sometimes they’re the ones that spot something, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child, everyone looking out for each other”.

On the subject of sign-posting Liz went on to say that in the first place if they have identified that someone is really struggling we will get them professional advice as quickly as possible; a Doctor would be the first to consider; to CAMS, if it’s a child; and making sure that they’re safe and that there’s someone there to keep an eye on them: “We have lists of telephone numbers whether that’s to speak to Childline, The Samaritans or Mind, there is always someone to speak to and to give the right advice to pass on”.

Liz explained that one of the hardest things was starting the process when someone had been identified as having a problem; that finding the right time and place to confront the situation was a very delicate matter. And then trying to get them to talk about their problems, and listening to them, being the first and foremost skill. Liz went on to say: “How we then react is based upon the severity of the problem, if we believed someone was in danger of harming themselves we would call for an ambulance, alternatively it may be advising them to consult their Doctor or to put them in touch with one of the many charities”. From listening to Liz, the problems of mental health does not only exist within the younger sections of the Rugby Club, she believes that the problems can get magnified with young men, affecting players in the Colts and the senior teams: “Guys into their thirties can suffer the same problems; and at that age it becomes un-cool to talk about such things – at some time we all might feel the effect of depression – the ‘black dog’ following us around, we need to be aware of it and take time out to chill”.

What’s apparent is the number of people that need to be involved and educated, to identify situations, looking out for each other across the Rugby Club’s large community. To that end, it’s hoped that all of the Coaches might be able to have a session with an expert in the field. Liz hopes to arrange something with ‘Give A Ruck’ at the soonest, perhaps even on Zoom before Lockdown is over.

Phil Mason, the Club’s Mini and Junior Manager, is at the cornerstone of this initiative along with Chairman Stephen Branch and Head Coach Andy Appleyard. Stephen Branch commenting: “Mental health in sport is a stigma that many have been trying to eradicate in recent years and Andy and I have massive support for this initiative at the Club, sadly this second Lockdown makes it even more poignant at the moment”.

Whilst this is what’s happening at Macclesfield Rugby Club, one hopes that there are similar initiatives happening elsewhere at other Clubs. There is a lot of advice available to Mental Health First Aiders; this is the ALGEE acronym: ASSESS the risk for harm; LISTEN non-judgementally; GIVE reassurance and information; ENCOURAGE appropriate professional help; ENCOURAGE self-help and other support strategies. LooseHeadz gives the following advice to stay mentally fit in these times: Connect with friends and family; Focus on self-care; Take time to slow down; Always be kind; Pause but don’t stop; Take time to focus on positives; Plan your day; Exercise regularly.

Whist there will be no rugby at Priory Park, until at least after December 2nd; we await news on a reformatted game and competitive matches in the New Year – with supporters!


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