FOR years the Empire Fighting Chance charity has been doing significant work in Bristol. Their programme now also incorporates an important element to help address mental health. These efforts have even been recognised with a royal visit from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

 “I understand that our charity was on their radar. Harry’s got a vested interest himself in sport and mental health. He’d heard about our work,” Jamie Sanigar told Boxing News. “He understood it. He got it. He was very passionate and followed on with subsequent meetings with his people and other projects that he’s setting up. It’s great profile for the sport to get royal interest. It’s certainly benefited us.”

The mental health support they provide is one strand to the work they do. “The amateur boxing club’s been there since the late 60s. My father [Chris Sanigar] boxed for them and obviously we’ve gone on to have a great track record creating champions. We’ve always been in a deprived community so the club’s always had a social conscience. But I’d say it was 12 years ago that Martin Bisp, who runs the amateur club, and myself started to do more formal work with young people in the community and started to develop it. The charity’s been around for the past five, six years now. Since we became a registered charity, we’ve just gone from strength to strength,” Sanigar explained. “We work with around 4,000 young people a year at the moment and it’s wide ranging, it’s young people that are at risk of exclusion from school but not only the ones with behavioural issues, we’re also dealing with passive learning, young people with mental health issues. All the way through to those involved with anti-social behaviour, gangs, criminality. Obviously a lot of work around knife crime at the moment, so it’s a vast spectrum of work that we’re doing with young people.”

The way they’re using boxing to help treat mental health is particularly fascinating. “We were recognising that certain young people were being labelled as a problem with their behaviour etc. To be honest it didn’t take a doctor to realise that what they were suffering was a mental issue,” Sanigar said. “This was five, six, seven years ago where mental health wasn’t readily talked about.”

It was difficult though to get support services for those who weren’t facing an emergency, even if they were on their way to a crisis. “You start to realise the threshold as well that a young person has to go through,” Jamie said. “Just impossible for a young person with maybe a lack of parental support, chaotic home life, they’re not going to be able to achieve those thresholds. You realise the system’s broke and those young people maybe with low level anxiety, depression, all the way through to self-harming etc. weren’t getting the support they needed. Naïvely we just decided to use the sport of boxing and develop our programme that way. We introduced therapy. In the early days it was the traditional model of sending them to a therapist. We realised that while that had good results there was a better way of doing things that involved me getting therapists into the gym, teaching them how to coach boxing, at a very low level I must say. It allowed them then to do the therapy within the gym session. We’ve also got sports psychologists involved developing our programme.

“We’ve embedded psychology within the delivery so all our coaches are mentors but they’ve also got that psychological training to develop and implant the messages into young people that are needed, maybe around mood, behaviour. It gives a lot more of an impact to the work we’re doing and it’s taking it to that next level really.”