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Ulster University rolls out pioneering sport-based mental health programme

Ulster University, in partnership with leading charity State of Mind Ireland, is rolling out a pioneering student mental health initiative that uses sport to improve mental health awareness and reduce the stigma associated with seeking treatment.

The new Ulster University initiative uses sport as a setting for communicating healthy lifestyle messages around mental health, substance misuse and risk-taking behaviours. It involves group discussion on mental fitness, the practice of mindfulness and practical steps to enhance physical activity. It also uses athletes as mental health ambassadors to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues.

The first of its kind in Northern Ireland, the Ulster University initiative is delivered to groups of first year students as part of their degree courses. Following an evaluation of the pilot programme by Ulster University researchers last year, the Public Health Agency funded a further roll out this evidenced-based programme that will now be delivered across a number of schools within the University.

Ulster University’s Dr Gavin Breslin, Head of School of Sport, who led the programme evaluation, said:

“Ulster University’s world-leading research in sports science and mental health is actively informing Government policy and positively impacting individuals and communities, both locally and globally.

“Unfortunately many young people, particularly males, find it difficult to talk about mental health problems and indeed they may not even recognise the signs of poor mental health. This Ulster University and State of Mind programme targets students in their first year, which is a time of significant change for them that can often trigger mental health issues.

“Sport can provide a setting to engage hard to reach young people, offering established social networks based on trusting relationships. In harnessing these relationships, we can develop tailored mental health education and awareness programmes that teach coping strategies’ that can truly make a difference to young peoples’ lives.”

This new mental health initiative builds on Ulster University’s world-leading research in sport and exercise science, which recently delivered a review of best-practice mental health and wellbeing interventions in sport for Sport Northern Ireland. Published in February 2017, the ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing in Sport: A Review and Recommendations’ report will support the development of an action plan for sports clubs within Northern Ireland.

The Ulster University State of Mind initiative was developed in partnership with the School of Sport and Student Support's Health and Wellbeing team.