January 5, 2009

Publication: Irish Mail on Sunday

Date: Sunday, December 28, 2008 Page: 50

Author: Ben Lyttleton

Headline: Now it's official – playing soccer is good for the mind


Now it's official – playing soccer is good for the mind MAURO Rrfaelli is an Italian doctor who specialises in the treatment of the mentally ill, and he is fast becoming known in the corridors of power at FIFA headquarters in Zurich. Raf aelli has set up Football Therapy, a seemingly simple idea that is transforming the lives of his patients, and countless others, throughout the country. What started as an organised kickaround in the Bufalotta suburb of Rome, has grown into tournaments that feature over SO teams, all of whose players suffer from schizophrenia or other mental illnesses.

It all began in 1994, when Rafaelli was giving one male patient a massage when he noticed his particularly muscular legs. When the patient told him he used to play a lot of football as a child, Rafaelli thought those happy childhood memories could be brought back to the surface by playing the game again. It worked, and the patient's condition improved. The idea of belonging to a social group also helps the patients, who are often isolated and, according to Rafaelli's medical partner Santo Rullo, 'living in a world of their own'. The doctors always form part of the team as well, to help their patients integrate smoothly into what for them is a larger community. From a medical point of view, the mere fact that they are engaging in strenuous activity is also valuable. 'Another great advantage is that the players increase their endorphin levels, the happy hormone that makes you feel good after exercise,' explained Rullo.

'Many disabling mental conditions, like depression, are linked with reduced endorphins.' Half of the patients who play need less medication as the football gives them increased mobility and energy, both of which are affected by their doses of anti-psychotic. FIFA has noted Raf aelli's work and have reported on his league's success in their website's Social Responsibility section. Discussions have started about introducing the scheme in other countries, but for now Rafaelli is concentrating on maintaining the improvement in his own patients at the Gabbiano club, where he plays. Luca, a midfielder, had severe depression and was almost catatonic, but his condition has improved thanks to Football Therapy. He is now married with four children and enrolled at university. The striker Sandro suffered from hallucinations and used to hear voices in his head. 'It was as if I was exploding, with all the voices, but football helped me escape the prison of madness.' For Rafaelli, those tales of success are more important than any recognition that comes his way, but Football Therapy seems to be working and the powers- that-be have taken note.