Our evidence review on sport and dance for young people found a range of wellbeing benefits for young people participating in physical activity. In this week’s guest blog, Paul Jarvis-Beesley and Ceris Anderson from national charity Street Games share the findings from the Safe, Fit and Well research programme that explores connections between community sport and young people’s mental health and wellbeing in disadvantaged areas.   

When young people struggle with stress or anxiety, doctors and health professionals are not always the first port of call.  In fact, young people are more likely to seek help from their peers, the internet, parents or other trusted adults such as teachers, youth workers or sports coaches.  

Young people growing up in disadvantaged areas can live complex lives, facing multiple challenges on a daily basis.  As a result, they experience mental health problems, including stress and anxiety, at three times the rate of their better-off peers.  Rooted in social inequalities, the problem is complex and one that affects all of society.

Given that many young people take part in sport on a regular basis and being active is proven to contribute to positive wellbeing, it makes sense to explore what role, if any, structured sport can play in protecting and improving young people’s mental health.  

Safe, Fit and Well

Between February 2017 and May 2018, seven organisations within the StreetGames network took part in the Safe, Fit and Well research programme.  The Institute of Environment, Health and Societies at Brunel University carried out the evaluation using a case study methodology. Each organisation provided weekly doorstep sport sessions for young people including a wide variety of sport and fitness activities.

StreetGames supported each organisation with the following.

  • Regular action learning meetings.
  • One to one support from a specialist Mental Health Adviser.
  • Mental health and wellbeing training including:  
    • Mental Health First Aid for coaches and volunteers
    • Young Health Champion Level 2 training  for participants from the Royal Society for Public Health.
  • Standardised monitoring and evaluation.
  • Advocacy, to create local, referral and signposting pathways, into and out of the sports sessions.

Findings

Over 300 young people took part in the research programme.  This summary of participant feedback highlights the reasons why young people valued the sessions:  

  • opportunities to socialise with friends and meet new people
  • variety of activities to choose from and the low/no cost approach
  • opportunities to learn new skills
  • route to being active and developing healthy behaviours.

We used the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) to monitor participant wellbeing.

The 14-item scores on the WEMWBS survey are aggregated to result in a total score which can range from 14-70; higher scores represent higher levels of mental wellbeing. A score of less than 42 is regarded as low wellbeing, moderate wellbeing for 42-58 and high wellbeing for a score greater than 58. WEMWBS has been included in the Health Survey for England since 2010 and the  population mean score has varied from 51 to 53.

In total, a sample of 184 participants from five areas completed both a baseline and follow-up WEMWBS questionnaire.  The results showed that in each project, there was a higher percentage of participants with ‘high wellbeing’ scores and a lower percentage of participants with ‘low wellbeing’ scores from baseline to follow-up.

Three of the five projects indicated a statistically significant improvement in wellbeing change. And a ‘meaningful positive change’ in wellbeing – determined by a WEMWBS score improvement of 3 or more points from baseline to follow-up – was reported on 102 of the 184 participants who completed a WEMWBS questionnaire at baseline and follow-up.

What can the sector learn?

The case study research undertaken by Brunel University identified four active ingredients in the StreetGames Doorstep approach for success in enhancing mental health and wellbeing for young people taking part:

  1. Tailored provision including sport activities selected by young people and delivered with consideration of the barriers of time, costs, accessibility, and mental health stigma.
  2. Workforce training on Mental Health First Aid for project leaders and the RSPH Level 2 Young Health Champion Award for young participants and peer leaders.
  3. Partnerships between community sport, mental health, education, local authority and the voluntary sectors to maximise effective delivery and address mental health stigma.
  4. Strategies for high quality, credible research, monitoring and evaluation to ensure a stronger evidence base for the contribution of community sport to improving young people’s mental health and wellbeing.