A group of people are fighting back against their mental health problems — with the help of the local boxing club.
The Monkstown gym opens its facilities every week to them as part of a ground-breaking new link-up designed to help them back to emotional well-being.
The scheme involves residents of houses run by the mental health charity Threshold NI — and within weeks staff have noticed a huge change.
Paul Lavery, a project worker at Clearwater House, run by Threshold on the Antrim Road in Belfast, said: “So far it’s going really well.
“Everyone that comes to us has a severe enduring mental illness, such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, anxiety or personality disorders, and that means they may not have much motivation, hear voices or even just act a bit bizarrely.
“By coming here and getting involved in some activities, it gives them something to do to get them out of their houses and mixing with other people who have maybe had similar experiences or issues.
“Some of the guys have other complex issues — such as alcohol and drugs problems or maybe they’ve been homeless in the past or have difficult relationships with others — and this gives them a real outlet to do something more positive with their time.”
The programme upholds a strict ‘no substance’ policy — but many of the attendees have already reduced their alcohol consumption or drug use and are choose healthier foods and adopt a more active lifestyle.
Paul explained: “They maybe won’t do anything on a Wednesday because they don’t want to feel bad on a Thursday and then afterwards they feel better for it.”
With addiction often comes financial hardship but, with help from the National Lottery, sessions and transport to and from the gym are free.
Smoothies are also provided to promote healthy eating, important for many people on psychiatric medication as it is commonly linked to excessive weight gain. One participant even reported a four stone weight gain over a two-year period.
Paul said: “You’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, you don’t understand it and then you’re looking in the mirror and you don’t even look like yourself any more.
“So one of the goals of many people who enter our housing accommodation is that they’d love to lose weight and feel healthier, but that’s hard if you’ve got no motivation.”
Karen Surtees from Clearwater House has faced these problems, but is already noticing a difference in both her body and attitude after only a month of attending the gym.
She said: “If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be sitting at home, eating.
"I don’t think I eat as much when I’m here because I’m exercising and that does seem to squash the appetite and the boredom.
“I even went swimming on Saturday which is something I would have never done before.”
Patrick McBride, who lives in another Threshold house, Sophia, added: “Before I was in Sophia, I was living on my own for three years but I had to move. It was just getting on top of me and I couldn’t cope.
“This is good, though, because it gets me out and makes me do something a bit more productive with my time.
“Last summer I did a lot of hill walking, about five miles every morning, and I’ve started that again now since I’ve been coming here.”
Paul Lavery said: “Coming to the boxing club is different than a lot of the activities that are available for people with mental health issues.
“There are a lot of great services out there, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a stigma attached to a lot of things too and that can put people off.
“A boxing club or a gym, though, is different because anyone can go and so far it seems to be going well.”
Paul Johnston, project manager of Monkstown Boxing Club, added: “It’s been fantastic. We’re only a few weeks into this programme but we’re getting regular turn-out and the guys’ commitment to the programme has been great.
“The club is committed to tackling barriers for people wanting to get involved in sport and physical activity so we run loads of different things, like a homework club and different youth activities alongside the boxing, and it’s just good to see the club having a positive impact on people.”