New group fights for mental health of Ashfield youngsters after lockdowns

It was beloved boxer Frank Bruno who said: “Mental illness can happen to anybody. You can be a dustman, a politician, a Tesco worker…...anyone. It could be your dad, your brother or your aunt.”

By Richard Silverwood
Monday, 17th May 2021, 9:12 am
Youngsters in year four at Leamington Primary Academy in Sutton enjoying a Wellbeing Warriors session, run by Active Minds.
Youngsters in year four at Leamington Primary Academy in Sutton enjoying a Wellbeing Warriors session, run by Active Minds.

As he fought his own mental-health demons, Bruno might well have added children too. Your son, your daughter or your grandchild.

For a fledgling group in Ashfield is proving how support for youngsters is needed more than ever before after the stresses and strains of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns and restrictions.

Active Minds, a community interest company (CIC) set up last October by long-time volunteer Graeme Wheatley is leading a drive to tackle mental-health issues among youngsters aged four to 19.

Boxing and martial arts coach Graeme Wheatley, the founder and boss of Active Minds.

His work is centred on the use of boxing, kickboxing and martial arts to improve how they feel, both physically and mentally.

He has already won the support of schools in the area, and used Mental Health Awareness Week to call for better co-operation between the host of organisations working in the wellbeing field.

"Awareness campaigns are great,” Graeme, 44, said. “However, we are at the point where we need to transfer them into consistent, focused action.

"The charity, Mind, recently released research that 68 per cent of young people said their mental health had got worse during lockdown, and that one in four did not access support.

British featherweight boxing champion Leigh Wood gives a talk to the Wellbeing Warriors at Leamington Primary Academy in Sutton.

"At Active Minds, we currently have more than 100 children from the Ashfield area participating across our programmes, highlighting the importance of mental health.

"Early intervention is critical to support children and young people and to provide a strong supportive framework for positive mental health.

"But we need to see strong partnerships across charities, CICs, government, local councils and communities to drive this much-needed change.

"Only by working together will we start to address this crisis that we are all facing.

"Active Minds looks forward to working with like-minded organisations and individuals to create a better future for all people who experience mental-health challenges.”

Remarkably, Graeme, who lives in Sutton, is running Active Minds while still holding down a full-time job for a global information company as a product consultant helping to beat fraud.

After years as a volunteer coach in boxing and the martial arts at local gyms, he decided he wanted to do more, and he is being helped by wife Rachel, 37, who works in the HR department of an engineering company.

"We still have our jobs because Active Minds is a not-for-profit company,” said Graeme. “We don’t take anything financially from it.

"We balance each other quite well. I want to change the world and help thousands of kids, while Rachel is the sensible conscience of the company, stressing that we need strong foundations and a framework!”

Despite being limited by lockdown, those foundations have been laid in the last few months via four different programmes:

WELLBEING WARRIORS, which entails Graeme forming partnerships with schools in six-week sessions to help pupils. The first of those has been with Leamington Primary Academy in Sutton.

NINJA SQUAD – twice-weekly sessions for four-to-11-year-olds at the Revolution gym in Sutton.

FIGHT THE STIGMA – bespoke one-to-one coaching for people who are not comfortable in group sessions.

BOXHIIT – a corporate activity programme for adults that drives positive physical and mental health.

The latter two programmes have had to be held via Zoom during lockdown, but Graeme is delighted with how Active Minds is progressing.

"We are in a good place and starting to have a real impact,” he said.

"The kids are really buying into Wellbeing Warriors. We talk to them and give them tips, trying to break the stigma of mental health, and then we use the physical activity to address it.

"In the end, they are all qualified Wellbeing Warriors and become advocates of what we do, creating a little army.

"The engagement of the kids has been fantastic. Boxing, kickboxing and the martial arts get them stimulated and help them to manage their mental health.

"There is lots of research from lots of bodies that show it really does help. I know it has been absolutely critical in my life when I have experienced issues.

"It has helped to release energy and frustrations, creating an environment where you feel it is OK to talk about stuff.”

The Wellbeing Warriors received a real feather in its cap last week when British featherweight boxing champion Leigh Wood, who is based in Nottinghamshire, paid them a visit at the Leamington Academy.

But notwithstanding the success of Active Minds, Graeme is convinced more can be done to improve mental health within society as a whole. And he feels the key is collaboration and access.

"There are loads of great gyms, clubs and coaches out there, but we need to think about the barriers there are to access, such as cost, “ he said.

"We need to crack it together as a community – from the government down to the people on the coalface.

"I have been a volunteer for a number of years. But it is a very silent, regimented sector, and there is not a lot of collaboration.

"Active Minds receives great support from Ashfield District Council, but we have to find better and more innovative ways to help people with mental health, or things will get worse.

"We have to take some bold and brave steps.”

Among those steps, Graeme would love to see a mental-health consultant in every school. And he has already spoken to Ashfield MP Lee Anderson about a scheme whereby families are given wellness vouchers to redeem at sports clubs and gyms.

He is also frustrated that clubs have to “jump through so many hoops” to apply for funding.

"It is a laborious and antiquated process that has to get better,” said Graeme.

"In so many ways, we have to pool our collective resources and expertise to come up with better, long-term programmes to support mental health.”