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Bringing physical activity to the heart of mental health

Founded in 2017, the Cork Mental Health Athletic Club comprises mental healthcare staff from across Cork city and county. Not only does the Club promote and encourage running, it also serves as a forum for staff to meet up outside of a busy and sometimes stressful working environment and, in turn, to help create awareness of mental health issues

The transfer of mental health services from the old, single-location institutions to community-based services caused fragmentation within previously established running groups in this particular healthcare area. Most staff started to run individually or in small groups with no contact with other colleagues who shared the interest in running.  
“Following conversations with runners working in different locations, we decided to see if we could establish a new mental-healthcare running club and overcome the various challenges posed by staff working in different hospitals, on different shifts, on different days and nights, etc.,” explained Theresa Tierney-Bugler, one of the club’s founders.
“We soon recognised that a mental health-orientated club would be a natural fit and would easily establish itself at the heart of positive mental-health promotion and physical-health promotion too.”

Health promotion
The Club’s ethos maintains that everyone has as a role to play in tackling stigma associated with mental health.
“It brings the mental health conversation to the heart of running as well as bringing physical activity to the heart of mental health. One of our club athletes was recently asked by a fellow competitor at a race: ‘Just looking at the singlet there, just wondering, are you patients or staff or what is the club?’ Her reply was: ‘We could be both, why?’
He became quite embarrassed and said: ‘Oh I didn't mean it like that’, and so, they had a conversation about mental health that, essentially, helped reduce some stigma surrounding the topic.”
Mental illness can affect anyone in any walk of life for a multitude of reasons, according to Theresa.
“They could be struggling with grief, an eating disorder, depression, stress. And staff working within mental health are no different and are subject to the same challenges as anyone else.
“We are currently made up of staff from within the mental health services but that's not to say that we won't be joined by any member of the community, ex-service users or ex-patients who are on their road to mental health recovery. Many of our current members run for fun, some are quite competitive, some run to meet new people and get out of the house, some run to use it as a de-stress from work, some run for the headspace but all run for their own reasons and we have a good bit of banter along the way too.”

Running benefits
The benefits of running to our mental health are well documented and research continues to highlight its usefulness as a tool to promote and protect our mental health.
“From a physical health perspective, we know that anaerobic exercise increases our cardiovascular fitness and helps us maintain a healthy weight,” according to Theresa. “Running is also a weight-bearing exercise, so helps us to build strong bones. From a mental- health perspective, we know that it decreases the symptoms of depression as it releases endorphins – the happy hormones – which, as a natural anti-depressant, alleviates anxiety.
“It can also help if you’re recovering from addiction. Drugs can decrease the brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin and burns out their receptors. Running, on the other hand, helps to re-normalise the function of these two neurotransmitters and boosts their production,” explains Theresa.
“You often hear of the term runner’s high, well it’s definitely better than any other form of high. It also helps us sleep better by regulating our energy levels throughout the day. It increases our blood flow to the brain resulting in better brain functioning which further increases our mood and motivation for daily tasks. Lastly, it's so important to get out in the fresh air and sunshine to experience nature and be in the moment. It's also important to obtain your daily recommended level of Vitamin D, which if you’re deficient in, can cause symptoms of low mood.

The primary aim of the Cork Mental Health Athletic Club (AC) is to continue to advocate for the many benefits of running, and it does so with the support of mental health organisations including its sponsors, State of Mind Ireland (SOMI) and Cork Mental Health Foundation and Housing Association. Both organisations have been very supportive of the Club’s development. The Club is also very grateful for the support it has received from the Health Service Executive and the Healthy Ireland initiative and is engaged in various activities with them to promote physical activity and running.

Cork Mental Health AC currently has 20 members who all work in mental healthcare across various occupations including nursing, medical, administration, social work and catering. The club, while small in numbers, is dynamic, catering for the beginner runner and those more experienced and is open to everyone, whether they work in mental health, have used mental health services or not – any member of the wider community is welcome to join.
There are weekly training runs alongside more structured training programmes, such as a couch-to-5km plan, and the Club is also active in developing programmes that will increase physical activity in the workplace. In the local running scene, the Club also takes part in the Cork BHAA running series. Members recently completed the Cork half marathon while others are training for marathons and plans are in place to build a team for the cross-country season.
But, the full potential of the Cork Mental Health AC has yet to be realised, Theresa says.
“The long-term vision is to see all these people running together and making this club become a champion for positive mental health promotion. We hope that as it develops over the years, we can be an inclusive running club that uses physical health to promote positive mental health, increase our membership, continue to spread the joy of running, while having the craic.”
If you would like to join Cork Mental Health AC for a run or to find out more information, please contact Martin Herlihy on 085 164 0773.


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