Sport has the ability to bring together people of all ages. The Rugby World Cup quarter-finals this weekend will draw huge crowds; to the stadiums, to our pubs and to gatherings in homes and the grassroots clubs that are at the centre of so many of our communities. Sport's inherently communal nature is valuable, of course, but not only in the ways that you might think.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores why residents of the small town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, enjoyed exceptional life-expectancies and virtually no instances of heart disease in the 1950s - a decade when it reached epidemic levels across America. The town, an outlier on virtually every health metric, was a sensation. Further studies revealed death rates for all causes that were 30-35% lower than expected. The suicide rate was zero.
The good people of Roseto didn't have exemplar diets and many smoked. They worked no differently to nearby townsfolk, who shared their air and geography but not their aversion to dying of anything but old age. Neither did relatives living elsewhere. The difference, academics concluded, was Roseto itself - a town where the residents lived incredibly close-knit and sociable lives; participating in all manner of communal activities and interacting exceptionally regularly with their neighbours. Community, it was found, has profound health benefits.
Fast forward to today and the links between having an active lifestyle or participating in sport and enjoying good physical and mental health are well known. The suggestion that feeling isolated can inhibit the process of recovery for those suffering with mental health conditions - a group that all are agreed we must do more to support - hardly breaks new ground either. Yet to date attempts to build links between physical activity and good mental health have been woefully under-attempted, with stubborn funding structures, stigmatisation and a lack of emphasis on the transformative potential of sport all partly at fault. That is, until now.
Mind, the mental health charity, have teamed up with Sport England to launch 'Get Set to Go', a sport support programme that aims to improve the lives of mental health sufferers by helping them to get active and involved with community and non-traditional sports. Currently piloting in eight areas across the country, its impact has been immediate. Anecdotal feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and participants have reported significant improvements in their mental health - so much so that, in a few instances, individuals have taken on 'peer navigator' roles with the programme - acting as mentors to those joining after them.
The results are incredibly timely as the Government is putting together a new strategy for sport and as part of the consultation process specifically sought representations on 'how sport can be used to achieve broader positive social outcomes'. This could mark a paradigm shift in the way sport is delivered in our country. Initiatives like 'Get Set to Go' demonstrate that deploying sport as a vehicle for social good is possible, and that it can bring about positive change.
Many existing initiatives have shown what's possible. Youth crime in the Elthorne Park area of North London, long blighted by an endemic gang culture, plummeted after the Premier League established its 'Kickz' football outreach programme for example. Mind's pilot scheme shows that there is a broad potential in the mental health sphere, too.
In Roseto, being sociable comes automatically. This won't always be the case and for many mental health sufferers sport can be used as a 'hook' to get them involved at a club or in a group activity, which could make all the difference.
We are only just scratching the surface of what can be achieved when the transformative power of sport is effectively harnessed. Mental health could be the frontier that proves it.