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Sport is a vital part of the battle against mental health crisis, says Pat McGibbon

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Family support: Pat McGibbon with wife Bernadette and daughter Alicia, sons Callum and Shay at home in Lurgan

Family support: Pat McGibbon with wife Bernadette and daughter Alicia, sons Callum and Shay at home in Lurgan

In his days with Manchester United

In his days with Manchester United

Family support: Pat McGibbon with wife Bernadette and daughter Alicia, sons Callum and Shay at home in Lurgan

From the coronavirus pandemic to a mental health epidemic.

Every day we are hit with statistics informing us of how many people have been infected with coronavirus, how many have died and those who have recovered.

But who's going to show us the full impact of a major global mental health crisis?

Covid-19 has infected more than 11 million people across the world and killed more than 534,000, but the lockdown affected all of us, placing a huge mental strain on our lives.

Even before the disease arrived, Northern Ireland's mental health record was a disgrace.

In 1970, 73 people took their own lives here, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

In 2013, there were more than 300 deaths - and that figure has remained largely the same since.

The NI Executive says a mental health action plan will be published, providing a foundation for a mental health strategy before the end of this year.

It can't come quick enough.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned: "After decades of neglect and under investment in mental health services, the Covid-19 pandemic is now hitting families and communities with additional mental stress.

"Even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety and depression will continue to affect people and communities."

And according to research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children and young people are likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety long after the lockdown ends.

Dr Maria Loades, clinical psychologist from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, said: "From our analysis, it is clear there are strong associations between loneliness and depression in young people, both in the immediate and the longer term.

"We know this effect can sometimes be lagged, meaning it can take up to 10 years to really understand the scale of the mental health impact the Covid-19 crisis has created."

Psychologists have also argued that the delay in getting children and adolescents back to schools is a "national disaster", putting their mental health at risk.

For older people in particular, the loneliness that stems from social distancing can lead to depression and anxiety.

Sport NI responded by fast tracking a Sport Wellbeing Hub developed with the mental health charity Inspire, in partnership with the Public Health Agency.

A record number of footballers were seeking mental health support across the UK and Ireland even before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Glentoran manager Mick McDermott warned of a "mental health explosion" as players were robbed of the routine and structure that football brings to their lives, along with the release from the stresses of modern life.

Former Northern Ireland international Pat McGibbon, who set up Train 2B Smart to promote mental health through sport, shares his concerns.

"Sport as a great medium to help build resilience and positive mental health," says the ex- Manchester United defender.

"I've been able to do some planning work and have enjoyed talking to people about how the pandemic is affecting people from a mental health perspective.

"There's a lot of anxiety around the virus, with fears of a second spike and so many variables.

"I think if people watch too much news, it's not necessarily a good thing. Those who are isolated will be following the news more. I'm quite a positive person and I believe people should respect the guidelines and show common sense.

"Younger people and the elderly will be impacted not just now but in the future within schools and hospitals.

"There is no vaccine and we need to understand people's fears.

"We can control a certain amount but not everything.

"Within a team dynamic and structure, people have support but left outside that and they have to focus on their own drive and motivation.

"One of the five steps to well-being is being active. Whether that's at a full-time or part-time level, players have had to adjust their routines.

"In all sports, people talk within a changing room and that idea of a problem shared being a problem halved is taken away for a while.

"I'm not a big advocate for social media but I felt it has helped keep people connected during the pandemic."

Eight months after he joined United, Pat lost his older brother Phillip to suicide and it's his memory which is driving his mental health work.

"Suicide and self-harm is always a heavy subject to address but I believe we should educate young people to help them identify any issues," adds the former Newry City and Portadown manager.

"We don't need quick fixes, we need long-lasting impact in improving people's mental health.

"As with any type of a health crisis, take advice, exercise common sense and also speak to people if you are anxious about any issues.

"The best way to get through this is not to isolate yourself, but to talk to other people.

"Maybe a friend, family member or mental health coach can give you another perspective.

"It's about small steps and giving people a pick-up.

"We aren't robots, we all have our mental health and we will have moments when we feel down.

"In order to get through that we should speak to other people, if we feel the need to."

Belfast Telegraph