Coronavirus

21 April, 2020

What do our hobbies mean for our mental health?

So much of our ‘normal’ routines have been disrupted by the changes brought by the COVID-19 coronavirus, including our hobbies. Sean Fitzpatrick of our Service Users and Supporters Council explains how this break has made him think about the connection between our interests and our mental health.

Everything about this COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is confronting us with the impossible. If someone had once told me that football was going to be off the agenda for months, I'd tell my informant they were reading too much science fiction!

But the impossible has happened and I am having to fill my life without diving headers, deep crosses and fingertip saves: Shelbourne FC is my team and the League of Ireland in which they participate is suspended. 

Our interests do play an important part in our mental health. I caught up on research collected in the British West Midlands recently which suggested that being a football supporter has positive and beneficial effects on mental health. Seriously! And, if that wasn't cheery enough, an American clinical psychologist, Dr Richard Shuster, produced a study to prove that, when your team is winning or even just playing well, your brain starts releasing the neurotransmitter (or chemical messenger) dopamine, which is directly involved in its reward and pleasure centres. So, when you come home after your favourite team thrash another hapless rival and you’re asked who won, you can truthfully say that your mood and your health did!

But there is another serious issue at stake here, which is far too often ignored. People tend to forget that one in four people in the country will experience a mental health difficulty in their lifetime. So, whenever a decent crowd gathers, whether that be in Tolka Park, Croke Park or the Aviva, a quarter of the people in it are likely to have gone through anxiety, depression or another condition at some time. They may look fine, they may scream as loud as everyone else - maybe even louder! - but they have a mental health difficulty. That does not make them any less of a fan; it could even make them more so, because, despite whatever difficulties they are experiencing, they have braved the elements to come out and support their side.

The problem is that, if you were to ask these supporters to be honest about their mental health, would they put their hands up and say “I struggle”. Possibly not. That is a shame. There is still stigma and misunderstanding around mental health that we need to tackle. This break from our usual interests gives us an opportunity not only to think about how this stigma can affect people, but to remind us how important it is to address it.

I believe in Shelbourne FC and am hopeful that, in the months ahead as our routines begin to return, they will embark on a long, long unbeaten run to test out these theories, bringing us some extra dopamine and bringing people back together, no matter what they are going through.

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Embarking on the journey of mental health recovery: a service user’s experience