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Whether you agree with Jose Mourinho and count the Community Shield as a proper trophy, or just love it because it signals the return of weekly footie, this year’s season opener will be more of a special one than usual. 

Heads Up, a partnership between The FA and the Duke of Cambridge that wants to use football to inspire conversation around mental health, will officially launch. 

Created by Dark Horses and Fuse (Omnicom Media Group's specialist sports and entertainment division), the insight behind the campaign is that everyone should enjoy mental as well as physical health and our brains need to be kept fit, just like our bodies. 

The FA – Heads Up

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More than 300 million people suffer from mental health issues globally, and depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Worse than that, as last year’s Project 84 campaign by adam&eve/DDB so shockingly highlighted, male suicide 'costs' the UK 84 men every week.

Because of this, the tide of support for mental health being the next issue to be tackled has grown massively recently. And sport - with its vast reach, superstar spokespeople and male-dominated audience - backed by the reach and investment of brands, is seen as one of the best ways to achieve this.

Once sports stars have found the courage to stand up and talk, it is brands who are then best placed to amplify the message, creating a domino effect.

“The power of sports people is that they look to be extremely tough, perform well under pressure and have everything; something many aspire to (especially men). So, for a sports person to come out and say they have mental health problems is very powerful," points out Jamie Wynn-Morgan, the UK CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment. 

However, such a high pedestal is a difficult place to shout from. Just as so many people in their daily life struggle to open up about mental illness at work, so do sports pros. 

Above: Project 84, by adam&eve/DDB.


As former rugby star Martin Offiah says: “Mental health issues are seen as a weakness, so sports people tend to be reluctant to associate themselves with it, but campaigns such as Heads Up help to normalise the conditions and show sufferers they are not alone.” 

Offiah points to several sports stars who have talked (or at least tried to talk) openly about their issues. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy for [Tottenham’s] Danny Rose to share personal details of his life that caused his depression, but society is more receptive than maybe it was when Stan Collymore tried to explain his situation.”

And once sports stars have found the courage to stand up and talk, it is brands who are then best placed to amplify the message, creating a domino effect: the thinking being that the more people tell their stories of depression, the more people will be encouraged to tell their own stories of depression.

Above: Tottenham full-back Danny Rose has spoken out about his depression.


“Organisations need to champion these brave individuals," adds Offiah. "Terry Newton, the ex-Leeds and Wigan hooker may have still been with us if he was suffering today in our more receptive environment.” 

There are numerous examples of sports and brands working together to tackle D&I, but mental illness is playing catch-up and brands are still reticent to get involved externally until they get their “own houses in order” internally. As Stephen Hutchison, Managing Director at Fuse, notes: “It’s a more difficult option for brands. Something that feels quite hidden away.”  

There is a duty of care around these conversations - none of us are mental health professionals and we’re not necessarily qualified to give advice.

However, with something still so misunderstood and potentially hazardous if handled incorrectly, maybe reticence isn’t such a bad thing, reckons Simon Dent, Founder of Dark Horses. "There is a duty of care around these conversations - none of us are mental health professionals and we’re not necessarily qualified to give advice,” he says.

So, it is imperative that any campaign, like many based around behaviour change, be built from intensive and rigorous research and develop into long-term strategies instead of quick-hit one-off stunts.

Sport England's 2015 campaign, This Girl Can is a prime example, says Sarah Ruane, Strategic Lead for Health at Sport England. "[The campaign] was based on a huge amount of insight on behaviour change and how to connect with your audience. We showed women having fun, that exercise makes you feel good without the focus on ability.”

Sport England – This Girl Can

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It is also essential to understand an inherent dichotomy in the creation of initiatives in this new and largely unchartered territory. While the strategy needs a pragmatic, non-emotional approach (the tack Dent and Dark Horses took when building the thinking behind Heads Up), the execution needs to be a much more emotional play, strongly leveraging the fans’ passion points and the underlying tribalism of sports.

However, if brands can take their lead from the sports stars brave enough to open up, give them the mount to preach from, the insights to properly help fellow sufferers and the long-term support to develop their campaigns, the opportunity for them to lead the conversation and save mental anguish and lives is huge.

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