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Bristol students harness the power of sport to support their mental health

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As of today, a team of trained student volunteers will act as conduits between students in need and the University’s mental health and wellbeing services. (@BristolUni)

“Placing student voices front and centre is key to our approach in terms of early intervention and prevention,” said Pete Burrows, Bristol’s Physical Activity and Health Development Officer. “We understand that students themselves are often best placed to identify their needs and co-author projects that deliver positive change. I’ve been overwhelmed by the level of engagement and understanding from our students and am certain they will have a profoundly positive impact.”

With students rotating around small seminars and lecture groups, sport is often the most consistent structured social contact students have, hence the scheme is focused on university sports clubs.

“Football definitely has a unique relationship with mental health, and whilst a lot of progress has been made, there’s still a lot of work to do with regard to overcoming the associated stigma,” says Gautam Vyas, Equality and Welfare Secretary of Men’s Football at the University of Bristol and one of the initial cohort of ambassadors, known as Ted’s Friends.

Drawing on their own experiences coupled with mental health first aid training, Ted’s Friends form part of a wider network of like-minded individuals tasked with reframing how mental health is understood. They will also be involved in trialling events, initiatives and campaigns aimed at improving student wellbeing.

For Jenny Burr, Beginners Rep of the Bristol Snowsports Club, joining the Ted’s Friends team was the progression of a long-term commitment to advocating for young people’s mental health, having volunteered for Childline prior to university.

“The people at Snowsports made me so welcome during a time when I was struggling with feeling quite low and alone,” said Jenny, a second year History student. “To be able to stop these feelings for just one other individual would make me feel as though I had been able to do just a small part to give back to the society.”

The Foundation was set up by the family and friends of Ted Senior, a medical student and Bristol University graduate who passed away in 2018.

“Ted loved the community spirit Bristol had and it felt right to launch the scheme where he spent three very happy years,” said Max, Ted’s brother. “I believe that through sport and a peer-based approach, the internal barriers that students face when seeking help can be overcome.”

One of the core aims of the scheme is to counter the isolation that can be an acute experience for students, as Cameron Watson, one of the co-chairs of the Foundation explains: “For many, University is the first time they have moved away from home, and although technology can help, nothing can replace the social networks we all rely on to stay mentally healthy.

“Although physical sporting activity may look a little different this year, we believe a peer-based approach to mental health will foster a safer and ultimately more enjoyable environment within university sports clubs.” 

Max Wood is Welfare officer of the University’s American Football team. Playing sports and connecting with others was key to his own experience with mental health.

“I couldn’t really see how much of an impact my environment contributed to my mental health issues but once I started getting out a bit more and interacting with different people it became a lot clearer,” says Max, a fourth year Economics student.

Emily Skinner, a second year Law student and Social Secretary of the University of Bristol Basketball Team, is also part of the initial cohort. She said: “I think there is a rising pressure for young people, especially those at university, to always be having a good time. Social media exacerbates the myth that other people’s lives are perfect but I think we need to recognise that feeling depressed, isolated or anxious at university is more common than we think. If people voice these difficulties hopefully they can feel less alone.”

Great Lowe, Volleyball Club and my role is Student Engagement, Equality and Well-being Officer with the Volleyball team and third year International Business Management student, added: “The key to mental health support is talking and most importantly listening to any concerns our players may have, which is why this year we hope to encourage open and honest conversations to tackle these issues together.”

Contributing to efforts to break the stigma around mental health is a motivation that unites all of the Ted’s Friends volunteers, including Sunshine Hurrell, third year Classics student and wellbeing officer for the University Women’s Rugby team: “I hope that, with the skills I have already started and will continue to learn, I will be able to provide a space for people for feel safe, heard and happy.”

The Foundation hopes that the Bristol scheme will act as a pilot that can be extended to other universities across the UK. Co-chair Rob Sidwell added: “A lot of us trustees graduated a few years ago and so can still remember how large a role sport can play in university life. We are over the moon with just how fantastic all the Ted’s Friends are. They possess those same qualities that Ted had; kindness, openness and a sense that you can trust them with anything.”

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