Everton in the Community’s award-winning mental health programmes have provided life-changing and life-saving support to more than 5,000 people since 2007. The Club and its official charity want to increase access to care through The People’s Place, a proposed open-door facility on the Goodison Campus which will deliver a range of mental health programmes and enable signposting to other services.
In the lead-up to World Mental Health Day on Wednesday 10 October, evertonfc.com will be publishing a series of videos and articles to improve awareness of the issue and illustrate the unconditional support available from Everton in the Community to anybody suffering with mental health.
When Pearse Poland hits a rough patch he tells his brothers. Listed among the dictionary definitions of the word is this: ‘One related to another by common ties or interests’.
The interest which bounds together Poland and his brothers is football. Their common tie? Mental health. More specifically, all of these men suffer from various strands of mental illness.
“I would not say I am cured,” says Jake Mattocks, one of Poland’s ‘brothers’, his voice firm. “I will never be cured.”
Poland once feared stepping outside his front door. To do so, he believed, would be to invite “public humiliation”.
“I was diagnosed with psychosis,” says Poland. “When I went outside I had this thought everyone was looking at me, they were talking about me and laughing at me.
“It felt like public humiliation… as if the whole world was watching me.”
Poland and Mattocks are participants on Imagine Your Goals [IYG], a programme introduced 10 years ago by Everton in the Community [EitC] in tandem with Mersey Care NHS Trust.
It has mushroomed exponentially in the intervening decade. Everton in the Community has established Merseyside’s first mental health football league, with more than 200 people supported by IYG every week.
Poland stands on the touchline of a five-a-side football pitch, his back to game being contested with some gusto, and articulates the power of Imagine Your Goals.
“I have been on this programme three years and when I joined I could never have stood here talking to you like this,” he says, his rich Northern Irish tones clear against the background clamour.
“Football and Everton in the Community have brought me out of my shell and made me the person I am today.”
Imagine Your Goals has claimed a truckload of awards. More importantly, it has inspired the formation of another raft of mental health programmes delivered by EitC.
The next objective is to establish The People’s Place, a mental health facility on the burgeoning Goodison Campus, which will essentially provide a drop-in centre for anybody wanting to access help and support.
Poland initially could not buy into the idea of IYG being a source of nourishment and joy, never mind envisage he would discover a new family. A family whose company and unconditional love and support enabled the real Piers Poland to surface.
“I moved to Liverpool from Belfast four years ago, I left behind all my family and friends… and my life was a mess,” says Poland. “I had no support network and reached a stage where my mental health got so bad I could not leave the house.
“I was isolating myself and felt there was no one to help me.
“If it wasn’t for my family at home pushing me to go to my doctor, who put me in contact with Imagine Your Goals, I do not know where I would be.
“This programme gave me 20 brothers.
“To be blunt, I was in a very dark place. It could have gone two ways.
“I could have gone down a very dark road and not be sat here now. Luckily enough, I found the courage to speak to someone and Imagine Your Goals has given me the confidence and ability to come into the community and feel I am part of something.”
Poland appreciates how mental illness can afflict anybody – and in any number of guises.
“Everyone on this programme is from a different walk of life but we come here and it is a brotherhood,” he says. “We all have our own different mental health issues and lean on each other.”
Everton in the Community’s mental health care provision has reached more than 5,000 people.
The Blue Base, the Goodison Campus’s latest addition and officially opened by manager Marco Silva on the eve of this Premier League season, houses Pass on the Memories. The scheme supports people living with dementia and their carers.
“From the first day I came to Everton, Denise [Barrett-Baxendale, the Club’s Chief Executive] spoke to me about the community and what our Club does to help everybody,” said Silva. “I told her I want to be part of this.
“We are more than just a club, we are a family. We want to keep creating this fantastic connection between us and our fans and all of the community.
“When you see what the Club is doing behind the scenes to support and build important things for everyone, it is very important."
There is no magic bullet to scorch mental illness. It is a big and obdurate beast, at its most potent smothering its target.
To wriggle free of its clasp is the first step. The second is to remain out of reach of its grasping tentacles.
Jake Mattocks first joined IYG a decade ago. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning difficulties before leaving school. A subsequent accumulation of stress led to him “going manic and having blackouts, not knowing what I was doing”.
“People were very concerned for my safety,” he continues. “I was tested for epilepsy and nothing came back. They said it was stress related and kept me on board with Mersey Care, I received counselling and help from a community psychiatric nurse.
“It stopped for a while, I was like ‘happy days’, and got back into work. But EitC was always there, a phone call away, a football session away, never out of my life.
“Less than a year ago I took a turn for the worse; these episodes took a turn for the worse to the extent I was beating myself up. And whoever tried to stop me… I was beating them up.
“It was scary, I did not know what I was doing. I was tested again for epilepsy and the result was positive.
“It is stress related and had built up so much. I do not deal with it properly, it triggers a switch in my brain which makes me go into these manic modes.
“If I have a down day I go to a football session. For me, football is medicine… I go there and feel a lot better.”
The same psychologically-boosting, endorphin-fuelling result is achieved by Healthy Blues, a weekly exercise programme overseen by EitC for over 40s experiencing mental health problems.
At the other end of the age scale, EitC and Edge Hill University have combined their resources and expertise to devise Tackling the Blues [TtB], an early-intervention programme aimed at addressing the rising number of mental health problems encountered by children and young people.
Leighton Baines witnessed TtB’s work first-hand when he visited Linacre County Primary School in Bootle and threw himself into one of the students’ games of emoji bingo.
“It was fun and enjoyable but with a really important underlying message for the children,” said Everton left-back Baines.
“It is key Everton in the Community and Edge Hill deliver it that way, so it stays fun for the kids but enforces the message that it is okay to feel different feelings at different times. And it is also okay to talk about those feelings.”
Pearse Poland summoned the courage to talk about his feelings.
He has the awareness to recognise when he is slipping, the bravery to ask for help to stand up straight again.
When Poland’s equilibrium was recently disrupted, he composed himself, then composed a message and sent it to his new family.
“A couple of weeks ago I had a rough patch,” he says. “I put a post to my brothers on the Imagine Your Goals Facebook page and within minutes one of the lads messaged me and said, ‘I am on my way, I will be at yours in five minutes’.
“Everyone is there for each other, no matter the circumstances. If you need them, they are there for you.”
The People’s Place will provide similarly accessible support. If somebody is feeling mentally unwell, they can walk in the door. No obstacles in the form of waiting lists or referrals.
“It will have a major impact on the city of Liverpool,” says Poland. “Going to the football sessions is great but they are limited to certain days of the week.
“Mental health has no limits, it just creeps up on you.
“The fact there is going to be a drop-in centre for people means if you are having a bad day on a Tuesday when there is no football session, you can go in and meet like-minded people.
“A lot people, men in particular, do not like to talk about their feelings. Imagine Your Goals has broken the taboo around mental health for me.
“I am not afraid to talk to anyone about my illness, how I cope and deal with it.
“I will share and if that helps someone, even better.
“Imagine Your Goals gave me the confidence to be myself, to go out in the world and do my thing.”
By relating his story, Poland is doing his ‘thing’.
There is a healthy dialogue steadily opening up around mental health.
Everton in the Community was in on the conversation from the start and has an awful lot more to say.
Poland is proud he can add an assured and candid voice.
“I was shy when I joined the programme, my lack of confidence was the biggie for me,” he says. “The biggest thing I have gained from this programme is the confidence to go out and be myself and unafraid of what people think.
“There is a stigma around mental health. It is a taboo subject and people do not like to talk about it.
“I was one of those people. I did not want to speak about my mental health for fear of being outcast from society.
“Imagine Your Goals has helped me deal with that and feel comfortable in myself.”
Another EitC programme, Girls on Side, provides access to support for females across Merseyside living with mental health problems.
It strives to “stimulate participants’ imaginations, develop their confidence and increase social contact”.
Girls on Side is a source of sustained and absolute support, in common with every EitC mental health programme.
“The work has not stopped yet,” explained Professor Barrett-Baxendale at August’s Blue Base launch.
“We are on to our new project, The People’s Place… we recognise the major need in our community – and beyond – to develop, enhance and evolve our current mental health provision.
“Mental illnesses, unlike physical injuries, are invisible to everyone but those experiencing them.
“Many people suffer in silence, unaware helpful and supportive treatments are available.
“Our new facility will work to encourage people to talk more freely and operate an open-door policy to anyone needing to talk… we plan on using our skills, expertise and profile to fulfil our aim of building a facility that will help save the lives of people suffering with mental health issues.”
Mattocks relates the depth and open-ended nature of EitC’s care and support.
“There has not been a time when Everton were not in my life, their impact on me has been incredible,” he says. “There is something for everybody at EitC.
“I have met people in the past four years at Imagine Your Goals I am proud to call my brothers.
“I love them all. They are like family and I would do anything for them. They have helped me understand who I am, where I need to be and the potential I have.”
Poland continues the narrative.
“I still suffer,” he says, unflinching. “If it wasn’t for Imagine Your Goals I do not know where I would be now.
“It has a lot to do with the camaraderie and brotherhood, it is one big family. When you go to these programmes, the football aspect is brilliant, the opportunity to get out of the house and become physically fit, which is key to your mental health.
“The brotherhood makes the difference: the ability to be in a room or on a pitch with people who have similar issues, you can lean on each other when you are feeling down.
“These people know what you are going through and have experienced the same.
“If you are in the situation I was three years ago it will be the best decision you ever make to reach out to Imagine Your Goals, they will change your life.”
Poland is from a family of Manchester United supporters; his own footballing loyalties, too, lay squarely at Old Trafford when he crossed the Irish Sea four years ago.
“After the support Everton in the Community has given me, I can truly say I am a Blue,” says Poland. “I have bought more Everton jerseys than I ever did United shirts and been to more Everton matches than United games.
“Everton has a special place in my heart and no one can ever replace that.”
Indeed, Everton, Pearse Poland and Jake Mattocks have a common tie which will bond them for life.
If you need mental health support or to find out more about The People's Place project, click here.
Donate to Everton in the Community by texting EITC31 £5 to 70070.