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Using Sports & Arts to support mental health during Covid


More than 30 people from across the UK came together on December 8th to participate in a Facilitated Conversation on the use of Sports & Arts to support mental health during Covid. This was a follow up to the previous Facilitated Conversation on ‘Befriending’ which also recognised the importance of building and maintaining social contact during lockdown.

Jeff Morgan, Regional Co-ordinator for the North West and one of our trustees, opened the zoom session by suggesting we all try doing a Mexican Wave, setting a friendly and relaxed tone for the proceedings. Immediately there was laughter and a lot of smiles. Laughter is known to promote both physical and mental wellbeing. You can find out more about that here.

Jeff explained why he believed that engaging in arts and sport can help make lockdown bearable, particularly for people seeking sanctuary who may already be experiencing poor mental health as a result of their experiences and be at risk of retraumatisation by the government Covid restrictions which limit movement and social contact. Intellectually we may understand the need to suppress the virus through ‘social distancing’ and various lockdown measures but human beings are fundamentally social animals so we are going to need some coping mechanisms. This is where arts and sports come into play. This is true for everybody.

Jeff offered some useful quotations from a writer and a sportsman to get us thinking.

“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality” – Lewis Carroll, author of Alice In Wonderland and other works.

“Concentration is a fine antidote to anxiety” – Jack Nicklaus, world-class American golfer.

Freeing our imaginations and focusing our physical energy can help to give some purpose and meaning to our lives and enable us to achieve. This is particularly important for people seeking sanctuary who find themselves in a situation whereby they have lost dignity and position in life and are not yet valued in their new situation.

Holocaust survivor, Viktor E Frankl, wrote in his seminal book “Man’s Search For Meaning” of the importance of finding and developing a sense of meaning regardless of the situation we might find ourselves in.

Engaging in arts and sport, even on a temporary basis, can bring benefits, increasing self-esteem and restoring one’s human dignity.

Sessions speakers included Carl and Ibrahim from Bradford Refugee Forum who outlined the successful community based sports work they had been developing since 2014 and how they had adapted their methods during the pandemic, continuing to recognise the importance attached to the need for participants to get out of the house whenever possible. Ibrahim talked about how the initial focus was on children but they soon realised they needed to take care of the adults too so they introduced family football, cycling, and circuit walking for households around the park. They also organised online gym classes and discovered that women were much more active doing sport online than men.

Some of their activities required extra investment for PPE and new equipment but it was felt to be worthwhile. There was also an issue regarding digital poverty as not everyone has the equipment or means to access the internet.

They later broadened out the activities, for example, they introduced bike maintenance to a cycling group. Now, with an extension to their funding, they are partnering with Street Games UK and training up leaders.

Sam Slatcher, our Communication and Sanctuary Voice Co-ordinator, introduced the specific topic of the arts, describing City of Sanctuary UK’s Connect and Create online project which had run over the summer months providing regular weekly workshops in drama, song-writing, filmmaking, yoga and a Funday Friday café-style drop-in.

There’s a lovely film here which gives a flavour of the activities along with powerful participant testimonials. This was backed up by Saba and Shams, two of the participants. Saba specifically mentioned the importance of regular weekly sessions to maintain a human connection. Shams is now the regular co-facilitator of Funday Fridays which continued even after the funding ran out, demonstrating the importance of sustainable models.

Niloha Rangel gave an amazing inspirational talk about how she uses exercise and a positive mindset to beat the lockdown blues. She takes a holistic approach by adopting a healthy lifestyle encompassing exercise and healthy eating. Whilst acknowledging the emotional “baggage” that people seeking sanctuary often carry and the problems of integration in a new country, Niloha saw opportunities in lockdown – “it created more space in our lives”, she told us. She joined various support, learning and activity groups and made sure to set targets and reward herself. “Happiness is contagious” according to Niloha and we could all learn a lot from her. Her next project is to make a podcast to share her approach to wellbeing.

Breakout groups followed with participants sharing ways in which they had used sport and/or arts to support mental health during lockdown. Barriers were also discussed and ideas about how to overcome them.

A huge number of projects were shared from working with libraries, museums and local heritage to outdoor activities such as sharing culture sitting around campfires. Take-home activity packs were also seen to be popular especially for family learning, eg. Leicester City Football Club and Swindon Library Service had provided packs.

Some of the barriers identified in the breakout sessions included lack of safe communal spaces, poor communication between groups, uncertainty about government lockdown rules, lack of wi-fi for online activities. An important point regarding digital inclusion is the need not just to provide equipment and data but upskilling so that participants can make the best use of online activities.

You can watch a recording of the session here.

We have created a useful Mental Health resource pack which you can download here.

Please also check out the information and resources on our Arts page.