Participants of Arsenal in the Community’s mental health project welcomed a surprise visitor to one of their weekly sessions recently when Ashes hero Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff dropped by to take part in a football coaching session.

The cricketing star, who helped England to its first Ashes success in 18 years in 2005, was filming at St. Aloysius College in Islington, as part of a BBC documentary in which he explores the impact of depression and mental health problems on professional sportsmen.

During the programme, Freddie speaks to a number of sporting stars who have suffered from mental health difficulties before visiting Arsenal in the Community’s 'How Are You Feeling Today?' programme delivered by the Imagine Your Goals initiative. As part of England’s biggest anti-stigma programme, Time to Change, this offers football sessions twice a week for service users at Islington Mind and the Camden and Islington Foundation Trust and uses the sport to help improve participants’ physical and mental well-being.

Funded by the Premier League and Sport Relief, the project forms part of a national campaign. It is delivered in partnership with mental health programme, Time to Change, together with Camden and Islington Mental Health Foundation Trust, which aims to challenge attitudes and prejudices about mental health.

Despite being a fan of Premier League rivals, Manchester City, Freddie was full of praise for the Arsenal in the Community project and was happy to participate in a football match and hear their stories about how the programme has helped them tackle their own personal issues.

Commenting on the scheme, Freddie said: “It was great to visit the Arsenal in the Community project as part of the documentary. The work that they do is invaluable and is making a real difference, helping individuals to overcome depression and mental health problems. It made me realise the positive influence that sport can have on people and the reason why I started playing in the first place!”

Arsenal in the Community Mental Health Officer, Jason Kelvin, added: “During the sessions our participants are encouraged to leave their problems aside for two hours and actively participate in the session and indeed, when appropriate, lead a warm-up session. This subtle but intrinsically important role of leadership gives them a real sense of worth and significance.”

Director of Time to Change, the anti-stigma programme run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, Sue Baker added: “Sport can really make a difference to people with mental health problems and help to combat the isolation that people often face.

"The Arsenal programme, which is part of our Imagine Your Goals scheme, uses the powerful influence of football to help level the playing field for people with mental health problems. As a hugely admired sporting hero, Freddie’s honest and insightful documentary will benefit sports players, sports fans and the rest of society, and will also encourage more people to break down the powerful stigma that surrounds mental health.”

To find out more about Arsenal in the Community’s Mental Health work, contact Samir Singh on 0207 704 4158 or email ssingh@arsenal.co.uk.

To find out more about Time to Change, visit www.facebook.com/timetochange or www.time-to-change.org.uk. If you want to know more about help available locally, visit www.candi.nhs.uk.

Freddie Flintoff, Hidden Side of Sport will be shown on BBC1 on Wednesday, January 11th at 10.45pm.

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 12 Jan 2012