Tae Kwon Do helps people with severe mental health problems

When Ben Curran first suggested the idea of teaching martial arts to mental health service users, the response was mixed. Some professionals, he admits, were shocked.

“One or two asked if it was safe to be teaching these service users to fight. We had to do some work around challenging that perception,” says Curran, who manages the active outreach team at Julian Housing Support in Norwich.

He first came up with the idea of holding tae kwon do classes for service users after learning the martial art himself. “We are mindful that some of the things that help us may equally help our service users,” she says. “It’s not about teaching people to fight. Martial arts give people confidence, discipline and a sense of respect for themselves and others.”

He secured £10,000 from the Awards for All National Lottery scheme and raised a further £14,000 from Sport Relief and several local organisations. Then last April he started the Aspire Tae Kwon Do project providing a year-long programme for up to 20 service users to attend a weekly class.

Curran and his team wanted to make sure that the class was made up of men and women of all ages and fitness levels. But one thing the group members all have in common is a severe and enduring mental health problem.

Difficult to engage with

They are also labelled as difficult to engage with, but Curran says: “Often it’s the services that are difficult to engage with. We have a core belief that the solution isn’t always located within the problem. The person might not want to talk about the problem but if you can find some common ground with them then you can come back to the other issues later down the line.”

The results of the project speak for themselves, with all participants agreeing in a survey that their confidence had increased and that they felt more motivated since starting the classes. Most also confirmed that their fitness levels had improved and they all felt that they had begun to take more care of themselves.

“When people feel passionately about something or have strengths in a particular area, then change happens, often in a way that’s unimagined,” says Curran. “They find they can learn techniques and socialise with others, so they start to think about other areas of their lives to improve. It becomes a vehicle for change. We want to support people to find a meaningful life for themselves.”

No stigma

As well as holding the classes in a community venue so no stigma attaches to those attending, Curran was also careful to pick an instructor with the right attitude. Lyn Shipley, 52, originally taught Curran and now runs the Norwich Academy of Martial Arts with her son.

Shipley has worked in social care herself for 13 years and has a position as a children and family assistant for Norfolk Council. She says that tae kwon do has particular benefits for service users with mental health problems because of the confidence and sense of self-worth it fosters.

“In the past, the group members may not have stuck at things but the class is a consistent thing in their lives. I have seen the group really grow in confidence. One woman wouldn’t even partner up with someone when the classes began but the other week she got up in front of everyone and performed a kata [movement sequence]. At one point she would have got up and sat to the side if I had even suggested such a thing. It was brilliant to see the look on her face,” Shipley says.

Fiona Donaghey, 34, who has bipolar disorder, puts the success of the classes down to the support group members provide for one another. She admits to feeling very nervous when signing up for the classes but her self-confidence has since hit unexpected heights. “I thought I would be rubbish but everyone is really supportive and you feel such a great sense of achievement,” she says.

It is this kind of personal triumph that has made Curran determined to keep the classes going, even though the funding for the project ends this month. He hopes to do this by using direct payments – cash given to service users so they can buy the services they require. He also plans to offer taster tae kwon do sessions to potential members.

Group member and schizophrenia sufferer Roger Bentley, 40, will be one of the first to sign up for the next round of classes. “I had never done martial arts before or even been to a gym,” he says. “The classes have improved my confidence and self-esteem and made me less paranoid. I want to get a black belt now.”

E-mail b.curran@julianhousing.org or visit www.julianhousing.org

This article is published in the 9 April issue of Community Care under the heading The martial plan

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