A new study, published in the Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Mental Health, explores the importance of social inclusion in the process of recovery from mental health and or substance abuse challenges. The study authors, led by Esther Ogundipe from the University of South-Eastern Norway, highlight the importance of social recovery in a street football (soccer) program the leveraged the community and camaraderie of sports toward improved mental health.
“Social recovery takes into account a person’s social contexts. Thus, the impact of culture and the structural elements of our socio-economic-political system is seen as relevant. The concept of social recovery demands for health services, policymakers, and practitioners to look beyond the person, and consider issues of social justice and social inclusion,” Ogundipe and colleagues explain.
While the understanding of recovery has shifted over time, a dominant narrative remains that centers individual responsibility and minimizes social processes. However, a growing trend is moving away from individualistic ideas and toward an understanding of recovery that is about living a life of meaningful participation and belonging in the community. The authors write:
“Another way of understanding social recovery is by referring to what is essential to us all as human beings; being loved, being with others, loving someone, and having fun. Central in social recovery is that the person is first and foremost seen and understood as a citizen, living in the community and being an active agent in his or her life processes as opposed to a victim of a disease.”
A prominent focus of social recovery in the current literature is through sport, particularly street football (or soccer). The authors of the present article highlight previous studies that have drawn links between street football and the five concepts of recovery: Connectedness, Hope and optimism, Identity, Meaning and purpose, and Empowerment (CHIME).
The Football Association in Norway is an example of a social inclusion program where anyone with a mental health and or substance abuse problem can join. Their goal is “to facilitate a meaningful everyday life for the players.” The teams provide players with meaning and the opportunity to develop new coping skills.
While these types of community efforts are gaining traction, more research is needed to understand the connection between street football teams and the recovery process. Ogundipe and the study authors aimed to explore the relationship between the recovery process for those who experience mental health and or substance abuse challenges and their participation in street football teams.
In their study, Ogundipe and colleagues utilized the method of focus groups to explore their research questions. Eight focus groups were conducted between May and September 2018, which included over 50 participants. All participants were involved in the street football teams and were experiencing mental health and or substance abuse challenges. The interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using thematic content analysis.
Findings of the qualitative study produced three themes: (1) The spirit of the football team, (2) More than just a pitch, and (3) The country’s best follow-up system.
The spirit of the football team: Participants discussed how they felt free to be themselves, supported by their coaches and teammates, and a sense of belonging in a community as they are. One participant explained, “You can be yourself. You don’t need to pretend. If you have a bad day, then you have a bad day. You do not need to pretend.”
More than just a pitch: This theme captures how the participants felt stronger as they played, learned to trust their body, and gained a new sense of confidence in their abilities. Additionally, the theme captures how the individual turns from a self-centered focus to a team approach. In participants’ words: “You tend to only think about yourself. But on the football pitch, you are a part of a team, and you need to pay attention to the team’s and co-players’ needs and preferences.” And, “If someone is having a hard time, then we try to encourage him. That’s kind of the point.”
The country’s best follow-up system: The football teams provided participants meaningful participation while working through recovery. Since the specific teams were focused on recovery, they partnered with a variety of health and welfare services. The street football team provides avenues to addressing bigger issues that the individual may be struggling with. A participant stated, “Everything from living situation to, or if something else comes up, then it can get addressed right away, you get help. Something gets put in motion.”
In conclusion, the street football teams do not work as an island for recovery, instead, they connect individuals with others, give them a sense of meaning, and help them access services to make long term changes in their lives. While street football teams are just one example of social recovery, the concept is promising for those dealing with difficult life situations.
The study authors conclude with a quote from Pat Deegan in Realizing recovery:
“What matters in recovery is not whether we’re using services or not using services; using medications or not using medications. What matters in terms of a recovery orientation is, are we living the life we want to be living? Are we achieving our personal goals? Do we have friends? Do we have connections with the community? Are we contributing or giving back in some way?’’
Ogundipe, E., Borg, M., Thompson, T., Knutsen, T., Johansen, C., & Karlsson, B. (2020). Recovery on the Pitch: Street Football as a Means of Social Inclusion. Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Mental Health, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40737-020-00185-6 (Link)