How golf is used as therapy for psychosis sufferers15th October, 2012 by Jenny Yu
Approximately 300,000 people in the UK have suffered from the mind-altering illness psychosis at some point in their life.
Sufferers often experience hallucinations, delusions, confused or disturbed thoughts and / or a lack of self-awareness, which can make their lives incredibly difficult. This, in turn, makes it hard for them to engage in normal societal behaviour, such as participating in a sport, and places them at a high risk of suicide.
A number of successful treatments do exist – ranging from antipsychotic drugs to a multitude of therapies, which can include common techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy to rarer therapies including, for example, sufferers spending time looking after animals.
But it may surprise many people to know that golf has been successfully used as one of these less common therapies in the treatment of psychosis, and that the next time you look down a driving range, it is possible that one of the golfers you see is being treated for mental illness.
Chris Bennington is a health and wellbeing mental health support worker for Rotherham, Doncaster and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust’s Early Intervention in Psychosis team, and a keen golfer. He teaches the game to patients who have expressed an interest in golf.
“I’ve taken several clients to local ranges to participate in taster sessions,” he said.
“Golf is a very good way of helping people who suffer from psychosis. It gets my clients out of the house – which in itself is often a scary experience for anyone suffering from the symptoms of psychosis. In fact, many of my clients feel the benefits of simply going outdoors – the socialising, for example. Then there is the proven link between exercise and mental health wellbeing, which is another benefit of playing golf.
“A major benefit is the gain in confidence that can come from golf. Many people with mental health problems, including psychosis, suffer from poor social confidence or anxiety. I feel golf can help engage and build social confidence, which helps the client recover in a peaceful and enjoyable setting, helping him or her build confidence to face other social situations which they would normally avoid.
“By taking the client to the local range and hitting balls, then practicing on the putting green, this helps them with their confidence and gives them an interest in what would otherwise have been a sport they probably never would have played.
“Golf, and any new sport generally, can engage a client in such a way that they can become empowered to learn that new sport and conquer their illness and the negative symptoms associated with it.
“Moreover, as a golfer myself, I, as a therapist, can find a common interest with the client. This can help our relationship and empower the client to talk about their symptoms, which can aid recovery.
“This is why many of my clients have gone on to gain employment or have gone back to education to help them find employment. I still see some of them at the range after they have been discharged from our service!”
Chris pointed out that the opportunity of playing golf is usually limited to someone suffering from psychosis.
“It is normally very hard for them to get involved, not least because, even if they really like golf, they are not able to work and therefore don’t have the money to afford playing,” he said.
However, Chris added that the money the clubs and ranges receive from the golf therapy exercises normally comes out of the patients’ own pockets, as that process in itself encourages them not to become reliant on others as well as resulting in them feeling a sense of real world empowerment
Chris stated that as the teaching of golf is done in as fun a way as possible, competitive golf with handicaps is not applicable. However, some of his clients have excelled at the game.
“Some of them could have had an 18 handicap straight away,” he said, “and if a range or golf club were to devote time to give them coaching, who knows what can be achieved?”
While assisting carers as they help patients can be good PR for golf venues, there could even be direct financial gains to be made.
“Although none of the clients have gone on to become members of clubs, many have become nomadic golfers and started playing regularly with friends and family at local municipal courses,” said Chris.
What could golf facilities do to help ‘golf therapists’ like Chris?
“Some golf clubs have been very helpful. For example, Chris Bassett, the professional at Wath Golf Club in Yorkshire, has helped me out with clubs and advice,” he said.
“However, I have not approached local ranges or clubs for discounts as I feel this could hinder my therapeutic involvement, making the illness a disability, which could dis-empower the service user due to the stigma around mental health. I suppose they could give discounted taster sessions or discounted coaching. Most ranges have a bag full of old clubs they are happy to lend, for example. But this isn’t easy due to stigma and client confidentiality.
“Having said that, I am sure most clubs and ranges would be happy to help – I have recently received an email from a local municipal nine-hole course about their interest in our project, for example.”
If clubs did offer more support, there is the potential for golf to do as much for sufferers of mental illness as it has for those with physical impairments – and vice versa.
Could there even be a mental health open to rival the Disabled British Open?
“A mental health open sounds good,” said Chris. “But how would it be governed? With stigma around mental health, who would put their hands up and say ‘I have mental health problems’? But who knows where it could go – the benefits are great but it would need backing. I am just happy if it gets more people with mental health problems to get help and support, and get into a good sport.”
Chris concluded: “The negative symptoms of psychosis, such as social anxiety, can hinder some therapies, such as social inclusion, which empowers recovery.
“That’s why, in the last seven years, while working in the team, I have used golf as a form of social inclusion and social therapy.
“Our team ethos is to keep our clients out of mental health hospitals and look at all sorts of different ways for them to recover from the illness and gain employment or education.
“If golf therapy took off it could only help people with mental health problems recover and get involved with a sport that everyone can play; it could help to empower someone to achieve a goal they have set in their personal life. Without goals, dreams cannot be achieved.”
For more on golf therapy, email Chris: Christopher.Bennington@rdash.nhs.uk