Interview: Josh Millar
One of the most difficult things you can do is open up and talk about your struggles with mental health. According to CALM, a man takes his life every two hours in the UK. We need places where men can talk frankly and honestly about how they're feeling, a place where they feel safe to open up about depression. FC Not Alone is a football team that is offering that through the medium of sport.
Their panel tonight (7th March), ‘Football & Mental Health: Toxic Masculinity or Vehicle for Change?’, is looking to discuss the role that football can play in furthering the way we talk and think about mental health. The panel includes Ben Hawley from CALM, Jack Norman, who runs Milk For Tea—an initiative looking to help men live to the fulness of their potential—,and Marcia Lewis, the mother of 12-year-old Myles, who currently plays for the Arsenal Academy. Marcia will be talking about what it’s like to have a child who wants to be the best midfielder in the world, and the expectations that come from them. The panel is fully booked, but their aim is to run more workshops to create a conversation around men’s mental health.
We caught up with co-founders Matt Legg and Ian McKenzie to talk about the FC Not Alone origins and what they strive for as a club.
STARTING FC NOT ALONE
Matt: During my second year at university I suffered a period of depression. I had stopped playing football and had no energy; I felt like my limbs weren’t working. Football, for me, was a key part of my life and identity, but I’d just stopped.
Eventually, Ian persuaded me to get back into it, and it truly was a breakthrough moment. I realised that all was not lost and that I could get through what I was going through... and that’s where the initial connection between football and mental health came in. When I got better, and we saw Project 84 (an initiative by CALMzone which highlighted 84 men a week were taking their own lives), that really impacted us. We saw how CALM tend to use their campaigns to highlight mental health in comedy and entertainment forms, and we thought we could potentially do that with football.
So, we created FC Not Alone with the idea of holding a tournament in June with a World Cup format. Having promoted it through some celebrities, we got 24 teams down. CALM CEO Simon Gunning started the day with a speech about problems the country faces, especially with men not being able to talk about their mental health.
The tournament created a surrounding for them to discuss the issue completely freely. At FC Not Alone our ethos is that if you are part of FC Not Alone, you are showing your support to people with mental health issues. Also, we stand in solidarity as men—as we do in football stadiums. It has gone on since then.
(Above: CEO of CALM, Simon Gunning spoke ahead of the tournament about the problems men face with dealing with and talking about mental health)
THE IMPORTANCE OF A SAFE SPACE
Matt: Part of the reason for FC Not Alone for me was that I thought I was alone. In my head, I was thinking everyone else is at university; I can’t talk to them because they’re thriving. They don’t have a clue about what I’m going through. I felt completely alone. Apart from getting treatment, I didn’t have these safe spaces where I could discuss it and have this sense of community which I’d lost in my absence from university. With FC Not Alone you have this safe space, and therefore a sense of community when you’re not struggling, but also when you are. That was the really important part for me; we had now created something that I wished had been in place when I went through what I went through. It has become a more common topic in the last year, and suddenly you realise it’s in all forms of life. Especially among football and sportsmen, there is an issue surrounding depression. We do our bit, having events where people can discuss the topic with a friend. Unity, peace and bravery are the three things that underline FC Not Alone. For other men to try and help them and play our small role in a national epidemic of people taking their own lives.
THE POWER OF FOOTBALL
Matt: Football is part of my personality; it’s part of my identity. For me, it’s always been a great way to meet people, to socialise through my years. Without football in my life, I would be living a completely different one. I play two or three times a week at university; friendships start there. Even this year, it’s all new people. I didn’t know anyone. You train with them a few times, play a game, and suddenly you’re having beers after the match like you’ve known each other for a few months. It’s what we bonded over.
Ian: Football has been a big part of my life growing up. We used to play football in the back garden, with four or five of our cousins running around kicking the ball. My dad took me to Tottenham from when I was young; we had a season ticket. For me, although football is a positive part of my life, there’s also been an element of anxiety growing up around it as well. I was quite a big lad from a young age, but even before I got big I was always scared to play football, and it seemed like an unsafe zone for me. It was quite intimidating to join in.
I remember Martin Tyler was my primary school football teacher. I scored a goal in training and he picked me. I went to play in a school match, and my mum told me that I just ran away from the ball the whole time. I was just so scared of playing football. I loved watching it, but I was too scared to play. When I got into University, we ended up playing football, and I asked myself: why have I been scared to play all these years? It’s a great sport to play, a great sport to meet people, to get better at.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Ian: [When it comes to] the barrier of mental health, I don’t think it’s just a football barrier. We’re doing this event on toxic masculinity and football can be seen as this thing where men go to get really drunk and aggressive, an identity which is going to be very hard to get rid of. But, I think that the game should be celebrated as much more than that.
Going to games and getting pissed up, that’s not football necessarily; it’s a societal problem and football is just an escape. So that links to FC Not Alone for us. We could have a beer now and chat about football, so why don’t we encourage men to talk about the things that really matter while they’re going to football?
BEYOND TOXIC MASCULINITY
Matt: Playing—especially when I was growing up between 14 and 18—I was supposed to be squaring up to people if they put a bad tackle in on me. That part of football never really applied to me. I found it quite intimidating, but I put on a show and whatever. At training, you don’t talk about how you are. You talk about the party last night. My depressive episode was the culmination of bouts of anxiety, which I got over, but I still don’t really understand how now.
Since coming out with FC Not Alone, I’ve shared my story. I’m playing football and will ask people ‘How are you?’ and they just say ‘Okay’. But I want to ask ‘No, actually how are you? How are things?’ I can happily share when things are bad, and that is a new-found thing, and it was initially very, very difficult. So, another aspect of FC Not Alone for us is being the first kind of space where that conversation isn’t as difficult because part of coming to FC Not Alone is having that feeling of safety where I can talk about if things are shit.
Ian: I wouldn’t want to get rid of that element of football where you’re going to put a bad tackle in on someone. That’s the competitive nature of football. I feel like so many positive things have happened in my life due to football. I feel like it can be unfair that outsiders look in and see the game as this testosterone-fuelled place. It is much more than that. That’s part of the inspiration for creating such a positive movement with FC Not Alone is to say: this has helped us help other people with their mental health.
Matt: Also, from a purely scientific view, the sporting element of playing football, the endorphins released whilst exercising improve your mental health. Further, if you’re actually in a free zone where you can be whoever you are, we think the benefits are exponential. Coming back to the toxic masculinity point within football, it shouldn’t just be some kind of macho sentiment. Some people are like that; some people aren’t. But either way, you can come to FC Not Alone and act like yourself, which is a good feeling. At FC Not Alone, you have the sporting element and team aspect, which are really beneficial to someone's mental health, particularly when they’re in a crisis, like when I was persuaded to play.
Ian: There is another scientific point of just exercising anyway. When I was trying to lose weight and become more comfortable in my own skin, I wasn’t comfortable going to the gym or other forms of exercise. But when you use football as a platform for weight loss that is a lot easier because you’re running around and having the motivation to actually run. In my case, without playing a game, the motivation to exercise becomes lessened. I feel like football in my life has been an enabler to allow me to lose weight, get fit, and enjoy life from a physical point of view.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Matt: We’ve put together a panel from various fields and various industries to discuss whether football is still in this trap where toxic masculinity exists. Football can be used as a vehicle for change, but there are other people that argue it can’t. It’s good to have this panel together, through various experts in their fields, to discuss that. We’ve also created of a football kit and a new logo, so there will be some promotion of that, displaying all the effort that has gone into that, which Ian has been a massive part of. Also, getting the word out for our tournaments which are coming up in June. My proudest achievement in my life was our tournament last year, and we want to create another day where even more people can come together, start to feel part of this community, and also have a great day full of football. The standard of football last year was really high, in a really nice atmosphere, on a summer's day.
Ian: Even for us, the event is about learning about this topic. Matt and I are going to learn so much just witnessing these people talking about it. I had this idea, and Matt has this idea of what we are going to do, but it would be interesting for us to have people that we know of talk about what they think toxic masculinity is and what they think about football. That will help us within our vision and research to be able to provide more solutions and answers via our platform. I think in the timeline of last summer, it was clear to us we needed an event for this summer, to continue the momentum we had from last year, to get the community we’ve built in one place and discuss this topic. I don’t want our events to only be about playing football; I want them to be places for intelligent and meaningful discussions too. FC Not Alone is going to be a platform for much more than just football and we are very excited for what the future holds for us and our growing community.