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Newcastle United and Sunderland AFC supporters put rivalry aside for World Mental Health Day

Newcastle and Sunderland’s intense rivalry is being set aside today by diehard supporters sending an important message to fellow football fans on World Mental Health Day.

Brought together by Newcastle United Foundation and Sunderland AFC’s Foundation of Light, Geordies and Mackems alike are being encouraged to start potentially life-saving conversations with family and friends or to take their own steps to sharing their mental wellbeing with others.

The official charities of both clubs made a combined commitment in January this year to promote positive mental health to thousands of supporters visiting St. James’ Park and the Stadium of Light through the Be A Game Changer campaign.

However, the COVID-19 crisis has left stands at both stadiums empty for seven months with supporters unable to share matchdays with loved ones or fellow fans at the ground, in pubs or other venues and households across the region.

But, with ongoing support from Newcastle United Foundation and Foundation of Light, supporters in both cities are uniting on World Mental Health Day to send a clear message that mental health has no colours.

World Mental Health Day is recognised each year on October 10th, with this year’s theme of ‘mental health for all’. To mark the date this year, Newcastle United Foundation and Foundation of Light have released a video featuring participants in both cities who have received support through Be A Game Changer.

Andrew a diehard Newcastle fan, tells of how he struggled with poor mental health for a number of years as a result of anxiety relating to his weight. Last year he tried to take his own life, but found support through his friend, Thomas Graham, who works at Newcastle United Foundation.

Andrew, a life-long Sunderland fan, speaks about how a difficult and heart-breaking, situation was the catalyst for him to seek help and open-up about how he was feeling. The life-changing support he needed came when he visited the Match Day Mental Health Hub at the Beacon of Light – a free service created by Sunderland AFC supporter group, Branch Liaison Council, and supported by the Foundation of Light – which provides fans access to trained counsellors from Washington Mind.

Ashley Lowe, Health and Wellbeing Manager at Newcastle United Foundation, said: “On World Mental Health Day, we are sharing an important and powerful message from Newcastle and Sunderland supporters themselves who have come together to tell others that mental health is something you can talk about and you will be listened to.

“One in four of us will experience mental health issues at some point in our lives. These issues are indiscriminate and mental health has no club and no colours – our experiences with mental health make us human and we need to talk about it more openly to encourage potentially life-saving conversations.

“For men in particular, who love their club and their city – the Be A Game Changer campaign is here to support them and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.”

Funded by the North East and North Cumbria Suicide Prevention Network, the Be A Game Changer mental health awareness campaign aims to reduce the region’s suicide rates among men aged 20 to 49. In January this year, both charities joined forces to make a combined commitment to promote positive mental health to thousands of supporters visiting St. James’ Park and the Stadium of Light through the campaign.

Throughout lockdown, both Foundations adapted their wellness programmes to ensure participants of all ages were engaged – in Newcastle, this included more than 1,000 phone calls made to elderly and vulnerable people, around 200 people given mental health guidance to lower anxiety and feeling of loneliness, and NHS staff invited to access Be A Game Changer mental wellness guidance online.

In Sunderland, elderly members of the community were also engaged in regular contact though phone calls and WhatsApp messages as part of the Extra Time Hub, with SAFC Director David Jones personally calling 45 fans. Sit and Be Fit exercise videos were shared online for those unable to get out and about and the Fit Black Cats programme temporarily moved to Facebook, with each member losing an average of 5kg.

Now, the two charities are back to operating a number of weekly health and wellbeing sessions, including Walking Football, specific mental health sessions with MAN v Fat, Fit Black Cats, 12thMan and Washington Mind’s Get Set to Go programmes.

Liz Barton-Jones, Foundation of Light’s Head of Health and Wellbeing, said: “We know that there are so many people out there struggling in silence, particularly men who are often led to believe sharing their feelings is ‘not what men do’.

“Our Be A Game Changer campaign and our powerful video being shared on World Mental Health Day is there to let people know they will be listened to and it’s okay to not be okay.

“We hope the campaign gets people talking – in Sunderland and Newcastle – as we know all it takes to potentially save a life is to start that first conversation. If we can encourage just one fan to open up after watching our video on World Mental Health Day, it’s been a success.”

The Be A Game Changer campaign was originally launched in February 2019 to encourage Newcastle United supporters to talk about they are really feeling and to recognise when they or their loved ones are in crisis.

Suzanne Sleeth, Suicide Prevention Coordinator with the North East and North Cumbria Suicide Prevention Network, said: “Tragically, we know that suicide rates are higher in our area than elsewhere in the country, and we recognise the devastating impact this has on those in the ripples – families, friends and whole communities can be affected.

“The North East and North Cumbria Suicide Prevention Network are proud to support the Be A Game Changer campaign as it brings home such an important message – that we all need to talk openly about our mental health and wellbeing and look after it just as we would our physical health.”

This year, Be A Game Changer Facebook communities for both clubs have become an increasingly important hub offering comfort, advice and practical information for those experiencing mental health issues or for friends and relatives supporting someone else.

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