Friday 27 October 2023

Embracing Vulnerability: University, Mental Health and Lessons From Football

Johnnie talks about learning about mental health, getting support and applying the lessons learnt to his writing.

- Johnnie Lowery

I went off to university in 2017 expecting it to be the time of my life. It was all anyone had said to me about my upcoming experience. In the end, the three years I had at University suffered the same fate as an ‘All You Can Eat Buffet’ - there was simply too much pressure to enjoy it for it to actually be a good time. 

Given what I knew about mental health back in those days, perhaps this isn’t too much of a surprise. I struggled with my mental health when I was a teenager without ever knowing it. The term ‘mental health’ didn’t register with me at all and I would have given you a funny look if you’d tried to tell me I suffered from anxiety and depression. I thought going through tough times was normal for a teenager, and so I never looked to get any help. 

Instead, I consoled myself with the notion that things would get better. The short-term fix for this was going to the football at the weekend because this provided enough of an escape to keep me just about functioning. However tough my week was, there was also something to look forward to at the end of the week when I would be able to go and watch my beloved Sutton United.

In the long term, I put all my faith in my future time at university, biding my time until I moved away into Higher Education. But, of course, this isn’t how it works. Freshers’ week was exciting and was certainly a change of pace from my mundane school days, but the change of scene was merely papering over the cracks. I’d done nothing to address the deeper conflict within me. 

Later on in my first year, I had something of a breakdown. It had all just gotten too much. Waking up in what felt like an out-of-body experience the next day, I knew I needed to get help. I knew the wait times on the NHS for counselling were severe, but the health insurance my dad had for his job covered his kids as well. I was able to get support within mere weeks of knowing I needed it, a privilege I’m aware that most people are not afforded. 

We need to do a lot better in our mental health provision as a country, but there is alternative support to what is available on the NHS out there. A lot of universities have mental health support services in place, and many graduate jobs come with health insurance that includes mental health provision. Whatever point of your journey you are at, I thoroughly recommend looking into what might be available for you, even if you don’t currently feel like you need it. There are lots of different routes to support but, for me, having counselling was the first step on my journey to better mental health, but it certainly wasn’t a silver bullet. I continue to have symptoms of depression and anxiety today, but now know how to recognise the signs and deal with them. I’ve recently started a second round of counselling, more specifically targeted at anxiety, which has been very helpful. 

In a slightly more left-field move, I also took to writing a book about the relationship between mental health and my main passion – football. The creative process was a fascinating experience, not least because there were some useful lessons from the football world that I feel are applicable to everyday life. 

One recurring theme that came up was that it’s a strength, not a weakness, to talk about mental health. Doing so allows us to become better versions of ourselves in every element of our lives, be it on the football pitch or otherwise. A second thing I want to touch upon is the importance of having the confidence to reach out for support when you feel you need it. It speaks volumes that the authorities involved with football are investing more than ever in making sure support services are there for footballers. The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), for example, provides a counselling service available for any member, with which they will always be able to find a counsellor no more than half an hour from their home. 

Football is still, sadly, a sport in which the stereotype of excessive masculinity pervades. If these footballers in this environment are looking to support their mental health, then you can do it at university too. In the world of football, everyone is finally waking up to the idea that talking about your mental health is a strength and not a weakness. It’s a lesson I first learnt myself during my first year of university.

Whether you are looking for support for your own mental health at university or supporting a friend, help is available

Johnnie Lowery is a keen football fan, following England and Sutton United home and away. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. Lowery has a keen interest in mental health based on his own experiences as a teenager when he didn’t understand why he was feeling down. Match Fit is inspired by a desire to ensure mental health does not remain a taboo subject in society.

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