Mixed martial arts helps young men access psychotherapy

A groundbreaking mental health project in Dublin (Ireland) is using Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as a vehicle to engage young men in one-to-one psychotherapy.

The 10-week program works on a dual process, with young men engaging in weekly counselling at the Beacon of Light Counselling Centre alongside a weekly MMA class.

The class is coached by master Muay Thai coach Karl Cannon with peer support sessions facilitated by mentors, who are previous participants in the program.

The Breakthrough model uses psychotherapy, psycho-education, physical education and nutritional advice to address mild to moderate mental health issues such as anxiety, anger management, addiction and depression.

The program has been evaluated by researchers at Maynooth University who have published their findings in the American Journal of Men’s Health.

The paper cites emerging evidence that men who seek help are not met with services that are “gender aware” and also highlights poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage as additional barriers to help seeking in at-risk males.

“Young men from disadvantaged backgrounds are often disconnected from their families and communities, compounded by issues of unemployment, lack of routine, and the absence of meaningful relationships. The absence or loss of a father figure or of a positive male role model was also highlighted as particularly detrimental to well-being,” say the authors.

The researchers point to studies showing that traditional psychotherapeutic interventions can be tailored to be more male-friendly to increase male help seeking and participation in therapy.

However, while there is much research focusing on the positive impact of sport on mental health, few studies have combined sporting programs with specific mental health interventions.

Where studies have been undertaken, the results are largely positive with male participants viewing sport as an effective medium for promoting mental health.

According to the research, all participants in the Breakthrough program reported it had a positive impact on their mental health, an improvement in their overall sense of well-being and coping skills, and increased confidence.

The researchers conclude that there is strong evidence to support the development of gender-specific mental health interventions as a means to both engage and access young men. They say:

“The Breakthrough program needs a larger platform and possibly expansion to other sports, which would widen the appeal to a larger population.

“Using the Breakthrough model of combining weekly sporting sessions in combination with one-to-one psychotherapy, it is envisaged that the program could be developed within other popular Irish sporting contexts such as football, Gaelic games, and rugby through partnership with national governing bodies. This will aid the expansion of the program to different communities and participants.”

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Download: Exploring the Effectiveness of an Integrated Mixed Martial Arts and Psychotherapy Intervention for Young Men’s Mental Health (PDF)

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