When Matt Etherington was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and forced to give up sport, he fell into a deep slump.
- Experts say community-based programs that provide support to young people in their environments can help them avoid needing acute care
- Mental health patients say receiving care in non-clinical settings where they are not labelled is important
- In Hobart, a community soccer team is providing vital support and connection for people with intellectual disabilities, mental health problems, and other issues
“I didn’t think there was a future. I didn’t think that I really had a role in my community and I’d reached a point where I didn’t want to live anymore,” he said.
But he found a way to bring sport and meaning back into his life through coaching a street soccer team dedicated to helping people with disadvantages.
“What I realised was that what I loved about sport was the community of it, and so when I found this program it seemed to tick every box and I never looked back,” he said.
The soccer program, run by the Big Issue Magazine, helps those with intellectual disabilities, mental health problems and other issues connect with others in similar circumstances and link them with the services they need.
The Hobart chapter is just one of 16 teams across the country.
Mr Etherington said his coaching role helped him find a sense of connection and purpose — and navigate his way back.
“This provides a place for them to debrief and say, ‘this is what’s going on for me’ and sometimes this is the only way that they can do that, so that’s very rewarding,” he said.
Four years on from his diagnosis, Mr Etherington has used his experience to help others.
He has taught a mental health first aid course to more than 600 university students, and continues to run weekly soccer training sessions in New Town.
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He said it was often easy for people to underestimate the importance of community connection.
“Oftentimes people who end up in ED or acute care need community connection more than at any point in their lives, and yet that’s at a time when they’re perhaps more isolated than ever,” he said.
“So I would say to the people trying to reform the system, that community connection must be first, second, last and throughout that process.
“Because if somebody feels like they’re not part of a community, then they lose that drive to get back to a healthy place.”
The latest youth mental health report from Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute shows almost a quarter of young Australians are facing mental health issues and services are struggling to keep up.
Communities can play a critical role
Mental health experts say initiatives like the Big Issue’s street soccer program have an essential role to play in our management of mental health.
Professor of social innovation at Melbourne’s Swinburne University Jane Burns said more emphasis needed to be placed on helping people through community programs and reaching them before they needed acute care.
“[We need to] start to explore what it looks like to do integrated mental health that’s not just about illness and not just about services, but really about what you can do in a community,” she said.
“The goal is not to keep young people in a holding pattern waiting to get into a service.
“We want to triage you. If you’re in high need, we want to get you into the care you need, and if your needs can be managed in the community then we want to support you to manage them in the community.
“Community connection, feeling valued, and being able to participate in something that has meaning for you, is really critical”.
Professor Burns said for those who are waiting to get into a service, online therapies could provide some much-needed relief.
“We’re not proposing that online is better than face-to-face. What we’re saying is how do you integrate the two so that people can get earlier support and into care with wraparound support?” she said.
Meeting ‘on the soccer field’ a game changer
Joanna Henderson from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada has worked with young people to design a care model.
She said one of the biggest changes had been extending the hours of services to evenings and weekends.
“We knew from working with young people that these are the times of days that they can really experience difficulties, so by expanding the hours of service delivery into those times it’s helped to meet the need,” she said.
She said the idea that “we need to meet young people where they’re at” needs to be taken literally rather than metaphorically.
“If you sit down and talk to young people about ‘what would it mean to meet you where you’re at?’ they’ll say things like ‘meet us on the soccer field, meet us in our schools, meet us in the places we go in the community for other things’,” she said.
“[They say] ‘we don’t want to walk through a door that says services for at-risk youth or mental health services’ and that’s understandable.”
For Mr Etherington, the soccer team has been a lifesaver.
“I consider this a turning point because I realised that my experience could be used to improve other people’s lives,” he said.
“The friends and the network that I’ve made through this community program are an integral part of my life now and I can’t really imagine what it would be like without them.”