CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
CEO of Sport In Mind - Neil Harris
This week ABF interviewed Neil Harris, CEO of the charity Sport In Mind. As we know movement is powerful beyond measure and it has the ability to heal. Here Neil tells us how Sport In Mind got off the ground and what mental health means to him. ABF proudly supports Sport In Mind. As a result a percentage of their revenue each year will be donated to them. We are very excited to help create awareness and bring mental health into the light for all.
Neil, lets start by tell everyone about Sport In Mind. How did it begin and what is the story behind its creation.
Firstly, thank you for having me. Sport in Mind is a nationally acclaimed charity that uses sport and physical activity to improve the lives of people experiencing mental health problems. The origins of the charity can be traced back to 2009 when a childhood friend of mine, Jamie, became mentally unwell and I devised a physical activity programme to help aid his recovery. However, at the time I didn’t realise this would inspire a charity which would go on to help thousands of people with mental health problems.
Jamie was struggling with depression, he was very anxious and became disconnected from the world. Although Jamie was really struggling mentally, he was reluctant to engage with traditional mental health services. Despite Jamies disinterest in sport or physical activity, I knew the positive impact being active can have on one’s mental health so I decided to design a physical activity programme to help his recovery.
Ultimately he was very reluctant but I managed to persuade Jamie to take part in some gentle physical activity. Firstly we started with a slow 1 minute walk each day, followed by 2 minutes and then 3 minutes. It was all about taking small, gradual steps + being persistent and consistent. Steps that were achievable, steps that helped break down barriers that would grow Jamie’s confidence.
After 4 weeks we began to see improvements in Jamie’s health. For the next 6 months, I worked closely with Jamie, utilising my physical activity programme and the results were staggering. Within 9 months, Jamie’s symptoms had significantly reduced, he was showing improved levels of self-esteem and had returned to full-time employment.
Over 10 years on, and Jamie continues to manage his mental health by engaging in sport and physical activity on a regular basis. He has been relapse free for 10 years and is enjoying life.
Driven by the success this programme had on Jamie’s recovery, in 2010 I decided to set up Sport in Mind with the aim of providing accessible sport and physical activity opportunities to help improve the lives of people experiencing mental health problems in my home town of Reading, Berkshire. Since then the charity has delivered thousands of sessions across the South of England and supported the recovery of over 14,000 people.
What does mental health mean to you and how do you look after your own mental health?
It means a great deal to me for so many reasons. Mental health affects how we think, feel and act, and it’s so important that mental health is viewed in the same way as physical health. I look after my mental health by making sure that I make time for myself, stay connected to people and most importantly stay active. Playing sport and being active regularly over the years has really helped my stress levels and mental health.
What is one narrative you think needs to change around how mental health is perceived in society?
Whilst there has been some fantastic work to raise awareness of mental health problems over recent years, there is unfortunately still a great deal of stigma associated to mental illness and I think much more needs to be done to educate people that mental health problems really can effect anyone.
For you personally, what has been one narrative that you feel has held you back and one that has propelled you forward?
The one thing that used to hold me back is rather aptly my mental health. As many of us do, I spent far too long worrying about what other people think and trying to be like others. Eventually you get to a point in your life when you just need to be yourself and do what you believe in. Sport in Mind is a perfect example of this. My motivation in life isn’t about money, it’s about helping people.
When I had the idea to set up Sport in Mind so many people said I shouldn’t do it or it wouldn’t work but I believed in my vision and had the drive in me to make it happen. The old me would never have gone on that journey because it wouldn’t have been what others would do. I think it’s so important to be yourself and do what you believe in, if I hadn’t then Sport in Mind wouldn’t be here today helping thousands of people each year.
I believe the key thing that has propelled me forward and hugely influenced what I do is my upbringing. I feel very fortunate every single day for the life I have and that I have two loving parents, but life certainly wasn’t easy for us as my dad was in a wheelchair from when I was young. The struggles that my parents experienced and seeing how disabled people were treated generally has undoubtedly influenced who I am now as a person and created a real desire to help disadvantaged communities have a better life.
Is there one narrative you feel is constant within the community you work with? What is it, why do you think it exists and does it need to change?
The myth that mental health is a problem only associated with certain sectors of the community, Mental Health is the same as Physical Health, it impacts everyone and like a broken bone it can be fix.
Choose one inspiring narrative you like to live your life by.
Take ownership, control the controllable and live life to the full
Lastly, what is your favourite song?
“This is me” from the greatest showman
This blog is all about building a community of people who want to Change The Narrative for the better. If you want to share your story on our blog please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We celebrate stories because stories and the narratives we tell ourselves dictate our lives.
Love Amy + The ABF Team