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Why the Sports Sector shouldn’t be responsible for mental health

by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan

In previous years many have critiqued the notion of a Mental Health Awareness “day”, suggesting it is a tokenistic approach to emotional and psychological wellbeing that pays lip-service to a problem without addressing its nuances or root causes. Moreover, much of the rhetoric around mental health insinuates that it is caused by, rooted in, and managed by individuals, rather than relating to the contexts of their lives.

Indeed, many of us have internalised the notion that mental health is an individual – rather than social – problem and responsibility. The sports sector provides an interesting example of this. As a project manager of Muslim Girls Fence I have watched this happen first hand. The project is a collaboration between Maslaha and British Fencing that uses fencing and creative activities to create safe spaces for Muslim girls and women to express themselves and physically and creatively challenge sexist, racist and islamophobic narratives.

In recent years the sports sector internationally and nationally has taken on narratives of ‘sport for development’ and ‘sport for social change’. Mental health often falls under these remits, for example, as part of the government’s first Sport Strategy – released in 2015 – mental health was prioritised as a central outcome. Whilst this appears encouraging and it is undoubtable that physical activity has a positive impact on most people’s mental health, what is troubling about this emphasis and the way it has manifested is that it relegates mental health to the realm of individual responsibility and mitigation.

The government’s approach to the sport sector is therefore similar to its wider approach of austerity and privatisation of public health and wellbeing services. Whilst cuts are made to the NHS, mental health services, youth services, domestic violence services, therapeutic and trauma services, etc; other sectors, including sport, are having to shoulder the responsibility for people’s emotional and mental wellbeing. This is where the problem lays. The sports sector is essentially taking on greater responsibility for people’s welfare as the government shrinks vital services.

This demands that we at Maslaha and other organisations in the sports sector not only deliver high quality work that is empathetic to the needs of the communities, but that we also do this in direct opposition to policy decisions that increase inequality and disadvantage.

Our work is not just concerned with the individual Muslim woman in our workshop on any given week, but more broadly coming to terms with having to navigate the harsh economic, social and political contexts that she exists in. This is a Muslim woman who faces  intense media vilification; lives in a context of government austerity which means she cannot access or afford many of the services she needs to regulate her and her family’s wellbeing; gentrification is still pushing up her weekly costs; access to women’s-only, free sports facilities is still lacking; increased policing of Muslims through counter-terror legislation is still stigmatising her and her loved ones; zero-hour contracts and unaffordable social housing still loom large for her family, etc.

The work becomes not just about the immediate benefits of sport and mental health, but about how we can sustain social change for a community in a structural context that undermines positive mental health.

For as long as we approach mental health by looking predominantly at how to mitigate its symptoms: how to help people feel ‘upbeat’, practice mindfulness, etc; we will remain a long way from addressing the root causes of mental health problems which reside in traumas and contexts. Indeed, mental health is directly linked to the impact of governance on welfare and healthcare, and to the impact of legislation that increases stigma and policing of communities and individuals. By disguising their own role in this context that causes people financial, health-related and racial or gender-based trauma-induced anxiety, stress, paranoia and depression, the government misdirects our attention from holding it to account for poor and increasingly worse mental health conditions.

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