Given the mental health challenges faced by many throughout the last year, BA (Hons) Multimedia Sports Journalism graduate Jay Whittle took the initiative to set up The Wigan Athletic Supporters Mental Health Group, designed to provide a support network for fans anxious about their club’s future and help break the stigma attached to mental health in football.

Working closely with BA (Hons) Football & Finance student Adam Brooks, the support group has gained over 300 members on various social media platforms since July and has helped many cope with the difficulties and uncertainties of the pandemic. Here, Adam tells us more about the group and how they hope to help fans going forward…

Tell us about The Wigan Athletic Supporters Mental Health Group and what you do. 

Essentially, the Wigan Athletic Supporters Mental Health Group is a fan-led group who operate to support football fans who struggle with their mental health. We have platforms on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, a WhatsApp group and an email address for fans to contact us. Our ultimate aim is to provide Wigan Athletic fans with a safe space and support network. It is a great opportunity for fans to connect with new people and support one another, but also for fans to come together and help break the stigma associated with mental health. We are also able to offer professional help if necessary, as we have members who have years of experience working as mental health nurses.

Why did yourself and Jay feel the need to set up this organisation? 

The need for this organisation to be set-up was driven by both the effects of COVID-19 and the club’s shock administration. Regarding COVID-19 and the lockdown restrictions that were put in place, football fans lost their ability to socially interact with one another. The sense of ‘looking forward to the match on Saturday’ has sadly faded, and this has left a lot of fans nationwide losing a sense of direction. To many, we believe that 90 minutes of football is an escape from our personal struggles, myself included. During the match, nothing else matters apart from cheering on your team and motivating them to get those three points! We wanted to help fans find that focus again, especially during a period where they could not see each other in person. Wigan Athletic is a family who supports one another, and we wanted to promote that between ourselves.

For the Wigan Athletic fans, the sudden event of the club’s administration was clearly a driving force of fear and anxiety. Through no fault of their own, fans, players and staff were directly affected. From my own experience, the whole process brought so many uncontrollable emotions, and it was evident that something needed to happen to help the community. It was a time where fans needed to come together, in typical Wigan Athletic fashion, and help one another with any struggles they may have.

Jay added: “I was inspired to set it up to provide a safe place for people to openly talk about their mental health. We are very proud to have been able to make a positive impact in the local community, and have created a real positive out of an extremely challenging situation.”

How does the organisation help fans' mental health?

We provide a support network for fans, and encourage communication between members. We acknowledge the fact that people have ups and downs, and it is okay to not be okay at times. However, we believe that it is crucial to open up and talk about it. The more we have done this over time since the group’s establishment, I believe the more people have realised and understood that this happens to more people than anticipated. We have created an environment where fans are supportive and there for each other, and that is the first step towards the improvement of mental health. When experiencing personal struggles, there is a feeling of loneliness and isolation, and the group certainly aims to combat that through our culture.

Do you think mental health in football is something that needs to be more openly discussed?

Absolutely, in all aspects of the sport. There is a stigma attached to mental health, particularly in a male-dominated environment. Phrases such as “man up” are part of the issue, as many believe that mental health problems undermine the masculinity of people. I personally believe that the sport is moving towards breaking that stigma, but progress still needs to be made. It all starts with a conversation, which is the hardest part of the entire process. After that, it can start to feel like a weight off your shoulders.

Do you think the mental health of fans is something football clubs themselves should take more responsibility for?

Yes. However, I think the players and staff of football clubs should be the main priority. As a group, we would love to see fans of other clubs setting up mental health groups in a similar capacity themselves. They are a great way to connect with each other, meet new people, and realise that nobody is alone with their struggles.