ROME--The success of Santo Rullo’s soccer teams has helped to spread a movement across Italy.
That success did not necessarily come on the pitch. The team’s players are patients of Rullo, a psychiatrist, and they showed a tendency to recover quickly from their mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and depression, and stay healthy by playing in the Calciosociale Italian soccer league.
Rullo, now 50, said his efforts to spread the idea of sports therapy received a big boost from the participation of soccer star Francesco Totti.
The league, whose current season opened in October, now has roughly 80 teams nationwide, with about 1,000 patients a year participating. The games also help the patients return to a normal life.
The league dates back to a time in 1994 when Rullo formed a team with patients who loved the sports.
On a recent autumn day, roughly 30 men with mental illness in their 20s to 50s were playing in a three-team tournament by a riverbed in the suburbs of Rome.
The psychiatrist said positive effects are obvious in 60 percent of the patients who participate in soccer. He believes this is caused by one or a combination of reasons.
He said people who refuse to acknowledge their illnesses and reject traditional treatments will often agree to “soccer therapy.” Rullo also said exercise stimulates the brain, preventing medication from lowering patients’ motivation.
In addition, following a game strategy helps patients deal with problems in their lives off the field, while playing in games gives patients who fear contact with people a chance to communicate with others, he said.
During their recovery process, players go up the ranks of the league, starting with teams of nine patients and two local community members to teams of nine local community members and two patients. This gradual re-entry into the community helps boost patients’ confidence.
And the contact between patients and residents helps reduce discrimination against people with mental illnesses in the local community.
Rullo recommends using sports to prevent suicide and to alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as well as depression.
He also believes that patients who practice together can identify signs of potential suicide and intervene before it’s too late.
In addition, sports therapy reduce aggression among abusive people or help children who are afraid to go to school, Rullo said.
Japan is also starting to use soccer and other sports to help patients with mental illnesses return to their communities.
A 36-year-old man from Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, became clinically depressed in 2006 when he was in a managerial position at an apparel firm due to his hectic work schedule and office politics. He became afraid of people and spent six months at home doing nothing.
He said he also had a desire to “just disappear.”
He continued a cycle of taking time off and returning to work. But that began to change in 2008, when he began playing futsal. He then felt a sense of accomplishment cooperating with his friends.
“Gradually, I became able to communicate again and accept myself after having not been able to for a long time,” he said.
The man is now in charge of management strategy at a nonprofit organization that runs a café helping disabled people find work.
According to Takehiko Okamura, a physician at Shin Abuyama Hospital in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, which has been using “futsal therapy” since 2006, half of the 32 patients who joined the sports therapy program have landed jobs or enrolled in school.
At the start of the program, only one of those 32 patients had a job.
“We are slowly proving that sports can be used to help patients improve their conditions,” Okamura said.
Japan has established more than 60 sports therapy teams in the past five years. Similar efforts have begun in Britain and northern Europe.
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