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27 May 2021 | 14:14

More than 40 sector leaders, policy experts, practitioners and academics from across health, sport and community development have emphasised the need for more cross-sectoral working, and for more innovative and inclusive approaches to engaging with diverse groups and communities in order to tackle key mental health and wellbeing inequalities exacerbated by Covid-19. 

The recommendations emerged during a policy round-table convened as part of the joint initiative from Mind and the Sport for Development Coalition aimed at enhancing sport’s contribution to addressing the mental health and wellbeing crisis brought on by the pandemic. Its purpose was for leaders across health, sport and community development to input into the design of key recommendations on future policy, funding and programmatic approaches.

An important focus of the round-table was to articulate the contribution that stakeholders from physical activity, sport and sport for development can make as part of an integrated approach to supporting mental health and wellbeing at neighbourhood, place and system level.


Supporting the round-table was a team of leading researchers in the field; Professor Andy Smith (Edge Hill University), Dr Florence Kinnafick and Dr Eva Rogers (Loughborough University). The team are reviewing empirical peer-reviewed research published since the onset of the pandemic along with learning, evidence and case studies submitted following a call for submissions from across the Coalition’s network of more than 180 organisations and wider community stakeholders. The outcomes of this review will complement the inputs received during the round-table and additional consultation activity.

This work is especially urgent given the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health. Mind’s own research on the impact of the first lockdown found that over half of younger people (52%) and almost half of adults (49%) felt their mental health had got worse due to not being able to play sport or exercise. Worryingly, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that one in five adults in the UK experienced some form of depression in early 2021 - more than double the level recorded before the pandemic.


Andy Reed, Chair of the Sport for Development Coalition, said: “We have long known that sport, sport for development and physical activity stakeholders can play an important role in supporting mental health and wellbeing outcomes, but the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the need to ensure policy and practice works to maximise the valuable contribution the sector can make. The recommendations put forward at this round-table will be extremely valuable in helping to achieve that outcome and support the shared objective of Government and civil society to work towards a more integrated health and community development system.” 

Some of the observations and emerging recommendations provided during the round-table were: 

  • Sectors working together emerged as a central recommendation, according to Dr Florence Kinnafick. “Cross-sectoral working is really important,” she said, giving the example of “local authorities with healthcare systems” working with the physical activity and sport system. Florence said it was essential that “integration language” across different sectors was also improved, thus leading to greater efficiency and effectiveness. “It’s those two worlds coming together,” she added. 
  • As an example Mel Islin, from Rethink Mental Illness, said her organisation had found that – despite the growth of social prescribing – there was limited awareness amongst GPs about how and where to signpost people with mental health problems to opportunities. “It’s about connecting the clinical sector with the voluntary sector and the community sector,” she said. “It’s about understanding what’s already out there, and bringing everybody together.” 
  • Olly Dawson, from Comic Relief, said that support for “communities experiencing racial inequality” was a priority for his organisation. He reported that it had also found simplified and streamlined processes around emergency funding during Covid had worked well and could be something which could increase accessibility for community-based groups supporting mental health and wellbeing outcomes in future. He said Comic Relief could also provide more funding around core costs and resilience in the future, as opposed to focusing on project-based funding. 
  • Shaheen Bi, Director of Projects for Sporting Equals which seeks to promote ethnic diversity across the sport and physical activity sector, said “institutional barriers” persisted, and there needed to be more inclusive and equitable engagement with ethnically diverse communities and the community sport organisations embedded within them. “These community groups are quite informal and loose, and they are dissolving because there’s not much support for them,” she warned. 
  • Paul Jarvis-Beesley, Head of Sport & Health for StreetGames, spoke of the disproportionate levels of poor mental health amongst children from deprived communities and echoed the call from Sir Michael Marmot to “build back from Covid not just better, but fairer”, including the need to invest in and empower locally-trusted organisations which “understand their place and neigbourhood”. He said: “We need to recognise and reward the will and determination of that vast network of small, locally-trusted organisations in our most deprived neighbourhoods that use sport purposefully to protect young people’s mental fitness.” 
  • Numerous attendees discussed the positives and negatives of digital delivery both during and after lockdowns. Contributors highlighted how it had helped to maintain engagement and reduce isolation during lockdown, but also issues of digital literacy and poverty, for example around lack of devices or broadband. Robert Nesbitt, from SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health), commented: “There’s a real opportunity for us to see how we blend in-person approaches and the digital space, but we do have to recognise the barriers in terms of availability of broadband or equipment, to be able to support people who are the hardest to reach or unable to connect.”  

The joint Mind and Sport for Development Coalition report and policy brief is due to be published in July, after being drafted and shared between organisations who have contributed to this process. Later in the year it will be presented to wider networks, including the Coalition’s network of 180- organisations and networks, Mind’s network of mental health and physical activity partners and to policy platforms, including APPGs (All-Party Parliamentary Groups) with a focus across mental health and sport.

The recommendations developed through the initiative will input into the joined-up work of key representative bodies in the sport and physical activity sector to maximise the contributions that the sector can make to the Government’s plans to build back better and level up the country.

Watch webinar: 'Sport tackles the Wellbeing Crisis' - March 2021.