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Tackling mental health through the power of football

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, we speak to Michael Cunningham, who works for Be Wiser, part of Ardonagh’s Retail segment. In 2020, Michael set up his own charity, Kick Start FC, to provide a safe space in the form of a football pitch to support people experiencing poor mental health. By encouraging individuals to come together to take a proactive approach to protecting their wellbeing, the charity aims to ‘tackle the mind’ and break down barriers to better understanding mental health.

Michael hit upon the idea of using football as a route to support people through mental health difficulties after receiving his own diagnosis of bipolar disorder. After struggling with his symptoms for many years, Michael finally received the help he needed, but he realised that more could be done to support others experiencing similar issues within his community. At the beginning of this year, Michael was awarded an ACT community grant of £5000, so that he could grow the charity further by providing football therapy sessions to teenagers.

Here, he tells us about his experiences of living with bipolar disorder and his determination to educate others on positive attitudes towards mental health.

Tackling mental health through the power of football

As told by Michael Cunningham

Four years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My diagnosis was the result of a very long journey, and it took me many years to come to terms with the fact that there was something not quite right with my mental health. It’s really hard to describe what it’s like to live with bipolar. I suppose the closest I can come to this is saying it’s like being on a roller coaster – it’s very up and down. The highs are very high, and the lows are very low.

Be Wiser's Michael Cunningham who founded Kick Start FC pictured on the sidelines at a training game
Michael Cunningham, Be Wiser Team Leader and founder of Kick Start FC pictured pitch side at one of the training games.

Before I received my diagnosis, there were days when I would come into the office, and I was like a black cloud. Within hours I could leave the building and be like a ray of sunshine – I just had this huge mixture of emotions, but there was no trigger or situation that made me feel that way, it was just me. People have likened me to a child, because when I am very high, I have this rush of energy and it can be hard for other people to be around, but then the lows are always there, and I’ll just sit and not say a word, like I’m not really a person at all.

I began to experience these symptoms in my late teens, but I couldn’t identify whether I was just a hormonal teenager or whether it was something a bit more. When I got to my early 20s, I didn’t know why I was still having those feelings and experiencing that behaviour. That’s when I started to think perhaps there was something more going on, but I always pushed it one side. I began to take a bit more notice when I started working in an office and my behaviour attracted comments.

Getting a diagnosis was challenging. When I first reached out, I went through my GP and I was prescribed medication. The first time I went on the medication, I suffered severely from side effects. I was vomiting and nauseous, I had headaches and my weight was fluctuating. They changed my medication and upped it a bit more. I felt at that point it was just a case of take the medication and see how you go. It got to a point where I had a breakdown. I went back to the doctor and said I needed more help. I was referred to a specialist who tested me and diagnosed me as having bipolar disorder.

I was 30 when I got my diagnosis, it took a very long time for me to get the support I needed. I feel, from my own personal experience, that if I’d received help sooner, then I would not have lost so much of my life. That’s my biggest regret. Throughout my 20s, I wasn’t living what I would call a full life, but I’m glad that I can now use my experiences to help others.

Once I knew I had bipolar disorder, it all made sense. I always advise people to try and get a diagnosis because once you do, and you understand what it is that makes you feel the way you do, you can start to help yourself. Without that knowledge it’s hard to know what you need because there is such a broad spectrum of mental illness, but there are always things that you can do to support your mental health.

Using the power of football to help others

Football has always been a huge outlet for me, and I realised that when I was playing football, it took my mind off my daily pressures. I think football offers a familiar platform for a lot of people to open up a bit more. We currently host three weekly football sessions, men’s, women’s and walking which are provided completely free of charge. Each session lasts an hour, and they are specifically designed to encourage people to exercise, socialise gain a bit of confidence and just have some fun.

There are lots of opportunities to meet new people and form relationships, which is a huge part of establishing better mental wellbeing. We encourage communication, people can be very timid when they first arrive, but after five or six weeks, they become more socially active in the group, and more importantly, they report becoming more socially active in their own circles.

It allows people the opportunity to start building support networks and open up a bit more about their mental health. Everyone who attends these sessions is able to access a group chat where they can turn to in times of crisis and ask questions and have conversations about mental health.

We have saved lives with our group chats. We once had a message ping at midnight where someone said that they felt lost and needed help, but then the message was immediately deleted. Thankfully a couple of us saw it and we tried to speak to the person. They said they were absolutely fine, but something didn’t feel right and we asked the person where they were and they didn’t reply. We decided to go look for them and thankfully we did, because if we hadn’t found this person they would have killed themselves. If we had not seen that message they might not be with us today.

What’s good about Kick Start is we have so many people, each with their own story, but we all have that same goal in mind, to be able to manage our own symptoms of mental ill health. I think seeing other people’s recovery in the session is what motivates people to continue their journey with us, because they see the results and trust the process.

Every time we play a game, we’re going to make mistakes, that’s just life. But if somebody does make a mistake in a game we have to encourage them, because the only person who is going to be harsh on that person, is the person who has made that mistake. They will be their own worst critic. Whenever that happens we have 10 other players on that field who are going to rally around them to pick them up and I think that’s what really makes us different.

Anything we do on the pitch we encourage teammates to take off the pitch. When people make mistakes in a game, they get that support, and we hope it encourages them off the pitch, because they have learned that it is absolutely fine to try new things and make a mistake.

Seeing the charity go from strength to strength means so much to me. I wish I had had that support network when I was going through tough times. Even though I had a close circle around me, I wished I had something larger to help me manage my symptoms. To be able to offer that was really the inspiration for Kick Start FC.

Women's training session in full flow at Kick Start FC
Women's training session in full flow at Kick Start FC

When Kick Start FC initially started we had two people turn up, and the week after nobody came. Now two years later we have more than 100 people turning up every week, believing in and trusting in what we do. It’s not something I can put into words; it just feels incredible.
People are always very grateful to get the support and we’ve had quite a few success stories. People are getting promotions because they are gaining confidence. We had one girl she never used to talk and she gradually started coming out of her shell. A year later she started working her way up to be head chef at her restaurant - she said she could not have done any of it without Kick Start.

The ACT grant will make a huge difference to us. Our sessions are currently only open to people aged 16 and above. With this funding we can now look at opening up our football therapy sessions to teenagers. We want to build a social hub, to help educate young people about mental health and give them a place to socialise. It means the absolute world to me that somebody within the company has had a look at what we do, and taken the time to consider and to openly believe in what we do.

The support we provide through Kick Start FC is incredibly important, now more so than ever. Mental health problems are extremely common and if you are struggling with your mental health, it’s important to know that you are not alone. There’s always hope for recovery. It’s not always easy, but there’s always hope.

For more information about Kick Start FC, visit the website www.kickstartFC.org.

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