Newcastle United heroes Dan Burn and Sean Longstaff are helping lead the conversation to erase the “taboo” of opening up on mental health after experiencing a powerful wellbeing workshop with Newcastle United Foundation.
It has been a memorable couple of weeks for both Burn and Longstaff with the Geordie boys sending St. James’ Park into a frenzy with goals against Paris Saint-Germain as well as starring in an unbeaten run of seven games. Away from the pitch, the impact has been equally impressive with their 90 minutes at Football Talks creating conversation for Foundation participants as the pair shared their own experiences of managing mental health.
Burn and Longstaff expressed low points in their lives, echoed by participants who regularly attend free Football Talks sessions at the Foundation’s community hub.
“I think mental health is so much bigger than football and its shows that people are no more important than each other,” Longstaff explained during the session, recalling a difficult period addressing his own mental wellbeing a number of years ago.
Burn pointed to social media as a negative influence in his life around ten years ago and the burden of criticism outweighing support and praise he would receive online.
Burn said: “It’s hard when you’re in that negative headspace because you don’t actually realise that you’re in it and you think that some of the things you’re worrying about and stressing about don’t matter or have an impact, but they do.
“Now when I look back on times when I was struggling, I can’t believe that those thoughts were even going through my head.”
More than 430 Football Talks workshops have been delivered since launching in 2020, with 86 per cent of participants reporting they feel less self-isolated because of Football Talks and 93 per cent of participants gaining new friendships and a support network by attending the sessions.
“The work that the Foundation does across all their programmes is so important but to see the work first-hand on supporting mental health is really special,” said Burn, who has attended a number of the charity’s programmes to date.
“The help, support and togetherness of the group was clear to see and if anybody out there is struggling then I cannot recommend highly enough that people get in touch with the Foundation.
“It’s such a taboo thing and something that we don’t talk about enough. Mental health affects everybody from all walks of life and something that needs to be talked about more to be able to help those who maybe don’t seek the support they need or want.”
Longstaff, an Ambassador for Newcastle United Foundation, also encouraged people in the North East to reach out and start conversations about mental health.
“The session was powerful and sad,” Longstaff said. “There was a gentleman who opened up and talked about suicides in his family and it was hard to hear.
“For him to have this group of people and support from the Foundation is really important because it’s a space where he and other can help each other and support each other.
“These Football Talks sessions make more difference than anybody can realise or describe.”
The North East continues to report the highest number of suicides of any region in England. In response to address poor mental health among men and women in the region, the Foundation offers a number of free support programmes as part of its health and wellbeing delivery.
Thomas Graham, Health and Wellbeing Project Coordinator at Newcastle United Foundation, leads the group session every week and has forged strong friendships with the group who meet at the Foundation’s community hub just five minutes’ walk from St. James’ Park.
He spoke about the impact of the sessions: “Football Talks launched during the height of the pandemic and was our way of connecting with participants who were socially isolated during lockdown. The Foundation’s Health and Wellbeing team have delivered more than 1,150 hours of Football Talks sessions since then and we see a core group attending week after week to chat and build friendships which ultimately improves their wellbeing.
“Getting Dan Burn and Sean Longstaff involved in Football Talks has been a fantastic experience and for them to share their insight on maintaining good mental health has been really beneficial for our group. Our participants really enjoyed joining Team Burn or Team Longstaff for the quiz portion of the session – it was tight, but Team Burn eventually came out on top.
“Support from the Premier League Charitable Fund allows us to deliver Football Talks for free every single week and without this funding, these sessions simply wouldn’t be possible. We are extremely grateful to both the Premier League Charitable Fund and Newcastle United Football Club for their amazing support.”
After getting to know participants at Football Talks, Longstaff noted the comradery among the group, calling on the famous Geordie spirit to inspire conversation at St. James’ Park, on public transport or at home.
Longstaff added: “The special thing about Newcastle is how good the people are – it’s a city where people can talk to each other.
“It sounds stupid, but you could be sat on a bus next to somebody who is going through so much or something terrible but by saying hello it can really help.
“It’s a tiny little gesture that can help so much. People here have a genuine interest in other people and helping. Just by talking to somebody you can really help and make a difference.”
World Mental Health Day is an international day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma, marked every year on October 10. Newcastle United and Newcastle United Foundation continue to work with local authorities, the Premier League and communities to support those living in the region.
The Foundation’s Health and Wellbeing team deliver a number of free sessions designed to improve physical and mental wellness, including Walking Football, health checks, 12-week personal development programmes and more.