Creative and sporting activities make mental health support more accessible for boys and young men, says Centre for Mental Health research

1 June 2021


Mental health services should be more flexible and informal to reach out to boys and young men, according to a report published today by Centre for Mental Health.

Trying something new: Improving boys’ and young men’s mental health through sports and creative activities is based on an evaluation of Comic Relief’s three-year Thriving Not Just Surviving programme which offered tailored mental health support for boys and young men. The programme also aimed to tackle stigma and gender stereotypes that boys and young men face in relation to their mental health.

The report finds that supporting mental health through sporting and creative activities can engage boys and young men who might find traditional services less welcoming or relevant. Skilled youth workers partnering with mental health practitioners can combine to improve both engagement and support. These approaches can also build up young men’s skills and confidence to become peer supporters and champions of change.

The report finds that the Covid-19 pandemic had a profound effect on boys’ and young men’s stress and anxiety levels. This was particularly marked for young men experiencing racial injustice. Projects that responded to structural inequalities and injustices were better able to engage marginalised young men.

The report calls on the NHS to develop services based on the Thriving Not Just Surviving approach, combining youth work with mental health support. It also says that the mental health workforce needs to be more reflective of the communities it seeks to serve. And the Government needs to fund local authorities to rebuild youth services after years of austerity policies and cuts.

Centre for Mental Health associate director for children and young people Kadra Abdinasir said:Trying something new shows that boys and young men will engage with mental health support if it’s offered in ways they find relevant and attractive. Sports, social and creative activities offer a more informal and positive approach to mental health than clinical services.

“The NHS and local councils need to link up with voluntary and community sector youth organisations as part of their mental health support offer for young people. Too often these organisations are seen as marginal to mainstream mental health provision rather than being a fundamental part of the system. This needs to change.

“Many of the projects in Trying something new have directly addressed longstanding inequalities and injustices. Mental health services need to be prepared to address social, economic and racial inequality to be relevant to young men’s lives and responsive to their needs.”

In 2018 Comic Relief’s Thriving Not Just Surviving programme invested £3.2 million in UK based projects to support vulnerable and disadvantaged young men aged 11-20 with mental health problems.

Samir Patel, CEO, Comic Relief said: “The pandemic has taken a huge toll on the nation’s mental health, with young people being some of the hardest hit. Young men and boys, and in particular those from Black and minority communities, can face many barriers to accessing the support they need and risk being overlooked. This report outlines the best ways to engage young men by including sport programmes, incorporating youth workers and ensuring staff are diverse and reflect the young people they are helping. I hope these findings will help more organisations engage young men in accessing the mental support they deserve.”

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