Football club shames offside mental health issues

Natalie Sims is a member of Minds United FC, a football team supported by the National Lottery

When Natalie Sims’ mother died of cancer, she struggled to come to terms with her loss.

The disease had already claimed the lives of her father and her best friend, so her mother’s death in June 2021 was a cruel blow – made worse by the loneliness of confinement.

“I knew my mum wasn’t well, but during the lockdowns it was difficult to visit her because it was too risky,” says Natalie, 41.

“When she died, I was devastated. I lost my father to cancer in 2015 and, in 2017, my best friend too.

The Londoner suffered from mental health issues for much of her adult life and her mother’s death left her severely depressed.

“I was dealing with a lot of grief that I hadn’t really dealt with,” she says.

“That’s usually my biggest trigger. After losing someone, I usually end up in the hospital because my depression gets really bad.

“The loss is hard on everyone, but especially me. It sends me into a deep depression and my thoughts of suicide are getting really bad.

Natalie, who was volunteering with a homeless charity that helped her forget her mother’s death, soon met another volunteer, Vicki McGarrigle, who was also working at a National Lottery-supported project called Minds United FC.

Minds United FC is a football club for people affected by mental health issues.

Team members come together to play football in a safe, non-judgmental environment, helping to reduce feelings of isolation and harnessing the proven power of exercise to fight depression and anxiety.

The club takes referrals from the NHS, but everyone is welcome.

Thanks to National Lottery players, over £50m has been raised for women’s football over the past 10 years.*

“It’s for anyone with mental health issues – from anxiety to those who need hospital treatment,” says Natalie.

“There are also quite a few members with learning disabilities and other special needs, as well as people with substance abuse issues.

“We welcome everyone – we are all inclusive.”

Natalie had played football in her youth, so Vicki suggested she come to a Minds United FC session.

Calling on all her courage, Natalie made the journey to the project’s headquarters on Latimer Road in west London.

She admits things weren’t easy at first.

“I left the first session thinking I would never come back,” she says. “I’m quite introverted – I enjoy my own company and have social anxiety.

“It was difficult to go from confinement where there were not many people to a situation where there were many people. My anxiety was through the roof.

“And I hadn’t played football for 10 years – I had forgotten how to kick a ball.”

It could have been the end, but Vicki urged her to keep going.

“She convinced me to come back,” Natalie says. “I didn’t want to give up because I had nothing else to do.

“I didn’t have confidence in myself in this situation. From past experience, I knew things could fall apart and I could end up in the hospital.

As Natalie regained some of her old football skills and got to know other players and coaches, she overcame her initial apprehension and started having fun.

“It happened quite quickly when I realized how much I missed football – that’s when it was worth it,” she says.

“So while it took a long time to feel comfortable around new people, I loved playing again.”

When organizers Minds United FC realized Natalie had Level 1 coaching – which she obtained in 2013 – they asked her to start an all-female session and team.

“I didn’t want to do it at first because the anxiety of talking to people was too much, but I’m glad I did,” she says.

Thanks to National Lottery players, over £50m has been raised for women’s football over the past 10 years.*

Thanks in part to this funding, Minds United FC now has two women’s teams and plans to expand even further in the future as women’s football continues to grow in popularity.

We welcome everyone – we are all inclusive.

Natalie on Minds United FC

Natalie is now at the club almost every day, whether playing, coaching or refereeing.

While encouraging players to improve their football skills is a key part of Natalie’s responsibilities, her role goes far beyond the technical side of the game.

“Any football manager will tell you he’s not just a manager,” she says.

“Whether you’re dealing with children, adults, or people with special needs or mental health issues, you’re someone they trust once they get to know you.

“They want to tell you about their life and share their problems. You will probably be the first person they come to rather than a friend or GP.

“It’s good to have that confidence. They respect us and don’t want to let us down.

Natalie is a passionate believer in the power of football to improve your mental health.

‘We tell our girls, ‘when you get on the pitch, you have to forget about everything and blow yourself up’.

“Nine times out of ten they feel better after they leave.”

Click on HERE for more information on the National Lottery’s summer of sport.

*Based on figures from April 2012 to March 2022.

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