'Fans supporting fans': Matchday Mental Health Hub set to return as Sunderland fans group provide new schemes
“If we can save just one person then everything we’ve done has been worthwhile,” Cath Reid speaks from the heart.
Cath is the secretary for the Sunderland AFC Branch Liaison Council which has around 8,000 subscribed members both in the UK and overseas.
While being proactive in raising funds for charities since it’s introduction in the early 1970s, the supporters group has taken further steps to help it’s fans over the last few years with the introduction of a Matchday Mental Health Hub - the first of its kind.
“Our journey started in March 2019 when one of our supporter branches held a fund-raising event at Victors for Man Health,” Cath explains.
"While travelling to the event, I received a call telling me one of our branch members had sadly died.
“The event and talk were related to depression and suicide and Kathy McKenna from Washington Mind spoke of the work of Washington Mind to support people suffering from depression and suicide.
“The figures were frightening. Sadly, during the evening I received a message to advise that our branch member had taken their own life.”
Fast forward to June 2019 and the group had put a plan in place to set-up the mental health hub, which was supported by former Black Cats owner Stewart Donald.
The idea was, with assistance of Washington Mind and trained councillors, to provide a supportive matchday facility run by Sunderland’s fans.
“We met our owner and told him our vision for a Matchday Mental Health Hub,” adds Cath. “He asked how much, imagine his surprise when we said nothing, it's important for fans to support fans.
“We agreed the club would support us in other ways, our belief is that it was important for fans to support fans.
"We believe as fans travelling to games the length and breadth of the country, we’re in the best place to identify when things ‘just aren’t right’ with our football family.”
The first matchday hub was launched in November 2019 and had several visitors – some of whom needed support and some who simply wanted a chat.
"We did have a fella who came into the hub and spent some time with the councillor,” recalls committee member Joanne Youngston.
"Then he went to the match and part of the plan was he was going to see his GP that week. His GP was shocked and could not believe he’d spoken to a councillor and had access to a councillor at a football game.
"If you go to a GP you can be waiting six to eight weeks to even see a councillor.
“It’s all about changing the conversation around mental health, the councillors are there but we are all there, we have volunteers there who can chat and have a cup of coffee.
“Before lockdown, we had eight hubs for three hours leading up to kick-off. We had six people who came in to access support and it developed into something afterwards. In terms of visitors. I think we had over 150.”
And it wasn’t just home fans who benefitted from the mental health hub, either, with away fans also able to access the facility.
"What we’d do is use social media to tweet away supporters,” adds Joanne.
"We would tweet that morning, Blackpool were one of the ones, so we’d say safe journey Blackpool fans, just to let you know we have supporters here and councillors through Washington Mind and give them directions.
“It wasn’t just home fans who would access support, it was away fans as well."
The first lockdown in March 2020 obviously posed challenges due to the season being postponed and the loss of social interaction.
Yet the Branch Liaison Council were able to adapt to stay in touch with fans, making support more accessible.
"Through lockdown Washington Mind have been unreal because as our matchday hub reduced, peoples’ needs increased,” says Joanne.
"We changed it to text support and telephone support so now we have daily, 9:30-11:30 people can text someone and they will ring you and can chat.
"We’ve had that through lockdown and we are aiming to start that face-to-face in the next few months.”
The initiative has also attracted interest from other clubs in England such as Tottenham Hotspur and Wycombe Wanderers who want to replicate the scheme, as well as clubs abroad.
"We’ve had a couple of clubs who have approached us and we have shared the information with other Premier League clubs who have approached us,” Cath explains.
"We’ve also shared this information with some clubs in Germany because things like this are really hot in Germany.”
As a club, Sunderland have also been extremely supportive, with Chief Operating Officer Steve Davison and Supporter Liaison Officer Chris Waters fully behind the scheme.
"We’ve got Steve Davison and Chris Waters who fully support us,” says Joanne.
"It’s a wonderful thing that the club are behind, they have displayed our number at half-time, they have let us put our flags in the stadium.
“As far as we know the new owners have heard about it and are very supportive as well.”
The aim this year is to raise funds to add a young persons’ councillor to the mental health hub, while events are planned for the coming months.
"We’ve got some fundraisers coming up because we are all volunteers,” says Joanne."We have a Luke O’Nien shirt that has been given to us and it means so much to people.”
Following a challenging 15 months of multiple lockdowns, peoples’ mental health is becoming a more prominent topic in both football and society.
If you do need support, or simply just someone to talk to, the Matchday Mental Health Hub is there to help.
To access support you can visit www.Washingtonmind.org.uk
Click the ‘speech bubble’ to enter chat to speak with a counsellor
You can also find more information on the BLC Fans supporting Fans Facebook page or on Twitter @BlcSafc