Personal story

Peer support through country football

community football action

Who: The West Australia Country Football League

Where: Southwest Western Australia

What: Peer Support Program

There was community concern in southwest Western Australia, an area also known as the Wheatbelt, about high rates of methamphetamine (ice) use and high levels of risky drinking. According to Shire of Northam Health & Wellbeing Plan 2016 – 2019, 44.8% of people who drank alcohol in the Wheatbelt drank at risk for long-term harm.

The West Australia Country Football League’s (WACFL) LDAT identified that football clubs are a social centre for many people in the community, especially young men, and that sport could be used as a vehicle to promote social inclusion and build support networks.

Led by passionate Joe Georgiades, General Manager of Country Football in WA, the LDAT’s Peer Support Program was rolled out within the Avon Football Association, comprising seven clubs.

Joe has over a decade of experience assisting and administrating not-for-profit organisations with a strong focus on grassroots sporting organisations. For him, it was important to approach the issue of alcohol and other drugs (AOD) with a personal touch and compassion. He personally visited each of the seven clubs to get the program up and running.

"It’s the human impact - speak from the heart.”

Addressing the local challenge

WACFL LDAT’s Peer Support Program provides volunteers with skills and information to help them recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health issues, and to encourage conversations with ‘at risk’ peers, leading to early interventions.

For Joe, his concern regarding the mental health of young people in the area was a key driver of the program.

“The program calls on local players to step up and provide the future generations of their towns with leadership around alcohol and other drugs and mental health,” Joe said.

Engaging young people

The program set a goal of recruiting 21 senior players to volunteer their time across the seven football clubs. It was a significant challenge that they met head on, promoting the program’s ‘pilot’ stage.

Remarkably, after Joe personally visited all seven clubs for workshops, 33 peer support ambassadors signed up. These club visits explored AOD education and mental health, focussing on creating connections as a preventative health mechanism.

The volunteer peer support leaders were given identifying jackets and made a pledge to the program. Their commitment was to attend three to four training sessions, promote key messages when opportunities presented themselves, not use illegal drugs, be passionate about positively influencing their community and uphold confidentiality.

Each of these leaders then completed a First Aid Certificate, a Rural Minds Course, education on local service providers and a 21-day mental health activity in the form of a gratitude journal. They engaged in club leadership analysis and discussion, talks with local police and Good Sports policy education. Good Sports is a preventative health program managed by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, which enables Australian community sporting clubs to create healthier and more family-friendly environments.

“Role models for youth are critical. Don’t underestimate the role sport can play in positively impacting young people.”

Kicking goals

The LDAT has had other successes outside of training peer support leaders.

In a big win, it has helped change attitudes to alcohol sponsorship within the WACFL. There are now 22 clubs in regional WA that have removed alcohol sponsorship from player guernseys. Seven clubs now have updated and appropriate member policies through Good Sports, covering issues such as alcohol, tobacco management and safe transport practices.

The LDAT’s program was also the impetus for country football attracting a mental health sponsorship from the WA State Government, which has agreed to sponsor the League for $300,000 per year on a three-year contract.

Moving forward

An evaluation report is currently underway, which will provide a clearer picture of the impact of the LDAT’s program. If the evaluation results show that the program has been effective in reducing alcohol and other drug harms in the pilot clubs, the LDAT will develop a roll-out plan. Four leagues within the WACFL have expressed interest in joining the program already, meaning the reach could extend to hundreds more players.

Joe said there were a few things critical to the early success of the program. He noted that it’s important to document and share the vision of the LDAT, as this is key to forming partnerships. He also cautioned to not expect too much from volunteers but to approach them personally and with respect.

“Young people will volunteer if you ask them correctly. Give them the opportunity to step up and support their community,” he advised.

Partners in the LDAT are Avon Football Association, Good Sports, WA State Government, Regional Men's Health, Rural Health West, Holyoake and WA Police.

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community football action