Sophia, now 17, was referred to Empire Fighting Chance by mental health services after experiencing severe depression and self-harm.
When she was 15, she was referred to NHS Children and Young People’s Mental Health services (CYPMHS) when following a prolonged period of self-harming which culminated in a suicide attempt. Her depression was so severe that she was able to skip the usual two-year waiting list to receive therapy. However, when she got there, she found often she left feeling worse than when she arrived.
‘They did sit-down talk therapy at first, and then when that wasn’t helping, they tried out a therapy called CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy]. To be honest, I feel like a lot of their work was just getting me to tell them what’s bad; I felt that constantly talking about what was wrong was more depressing.’
Her mental ill-health had begun years earlier when she was the victim of a sustained campaign of bullying by a group of girls in her school. ‘I was heavily bullied, and I feel like that caused those illnesses,’ she says. ‘In Years 7 and 8 I had quite good friends, but in Year 9 I think I was just an easy person to pick on… I don’t think they realised how much of a big impact being constantly bullied can have on someone.’ Following a year of endless harassment, Sophia stopped attending school. ‘My mental health was just getting worse and worse I took time out of school because I just couldn’t deal with it. I missed education because of their bullying,’ she says.
Following her suicide attempt, Sophia describes the experience of talking to her CYPMHS therapist as ‘very isolating’, as it felt uncomfortable to talk to a stranger about how low she was feeling. After a year of limited progress during which she continued to self-harm, she was referred to Empire Fighting Chance. Within weeks she was offered a place on a twenty-week programme of non-contact boxing alongside therapy and counselling.
For Sophia, it was the intervention she needed. After a few sessions of boxing, she felt she had built a strong relationship with her coach, Matt. ‘I really liked Matt and felt like I connected with him quite quickly. I was comfortable by the third session and then could just blurt anything to him; they need to know things about you if they’re going to talk it through with you and help you.’
She found that through the exercise she was able to bond with Matt in a way which felt natural and accelerated her ability to open up. ‘With Matt we do pads and then he’d talk to me, and I’d be able to let him know what was going on. It gets rid of the discomfort of just sitting there and telling someone everything; you’re kind of punching away the weirdness of telling someone all about yourself.’
Co-founder Martin says Empire Fighting Chance’s programmes are designed around boxing’s ability to engage young people in this way: ‘normal talking therapy can be a highly intimidating atmosphere for a young person who is not confident and comfortable enough in themselves to sit in a room with somebody they barely know and start talking about their problems. If you can find the things they enjoy and you can give them access to things they enjoy then actually that road is a lot easier to walk down.’
‘If I didn’t have Empire I don’t think I would have made progress so quickly,’ Sophia says. Her improvement has been so dramatic that that she has just been discharged from CYPMHS who no longer consider her to be in need of their care. ‘When I started with Empire I was really low and didn’t really see the point, but now I feel a lot better. I have loads of plans for the future and I can manage my emotions now. I now have the skills to help myself feel better before I get to a really low point. I feel a lot better than I did at the start of this year – it’s a major improvement,’ she concludes.
Sophia has now been working with Matt for nearly a year, and the change is stark. As a result of the strategies they’ve been working on she feels much more mentally well, and has just sat the GCSE exams she missed due to her mental health. After years of depression where she couldn’t see a future for herself, she is now studying for A-levels so that she can pursue a career as either a paramedic or nutritionist.
In 2022, Empire Fighting Chance reached over 5,000 young people like Sophia.
If you know of a young person who may benefit from Empire Fighting Chance’s programmes, email email@example.com.