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Frank Bruno helping kids with mental health in biggest fight since boxing career

Young people in the grip of mental health struggles have a worthy ally in their corner – former world heavyweight champ Frank Bruno.

The sporting icon, a longtime mental health advocate, says kids’ welfare has become his No1 focus and he won’t stop until he’s helped as many as he can.

He says boxing training and wellbeing sessions have helped those under his wing.

And he asks doctors to “listen more to patients” and warns of the perils of relying too much on medication. He says young people need to know “the world is their oyster” but must be willing to put in the hard graft to make positive change.

Dad-of-four Frank, 59, reveals that, through mentoring others, he has helped saved the lives of people considering suicide.

Frank has helped save the lives of people contemplating suicide

And he tells how taking up yoga and meditation during lockdown helped him keep his own mental health in check.

We’re at The Frank Bruno Foundation – a volunteer-run centre on the outskirts of Northampton which opened after lockdown lifted – and his passion to help struggling youngsters is clear.

With the support of the local council, firms and a generous team of people, social workers and trainers, the foundation has started helping kids as young as 13 realise their potential.

For some, it’s a way out of the gang culture that has overshadowed their formative years.

For others, who have lived with depression or are unable to tame their aggression, it’s a confidence booster and a focus. “This is the most important thing I’ve done since the boxing,” Frank says.

Joe Potter is one of the youngsters who has benefitted from Frank's work
Joe Potter is one of the youngsters who has benefitted from Frank’s work

“When I was nine I knew I wanted to be a boxer. It took a long time, but I fulfilled that. Now I’m on a different journey, helping people who are going through difficult things.

“It’s about helping kids know the world is their oyster and they have options. I want to fulfil this mission to help them. But I’m no Father Christmas – they need to be willing also.”

According to mental health charities, one in four people experience some kind of problem each year.

Over a lifetime, one in five experience suicidal thoughts.

Frank’s message on Mental Health Awareness Week is clear: “Get help. Talk. But be willing to make a change. I know what it’s like to be in a bad place. I’ve been there, got the T-shirt.”

His own battle with depression is well catalogued.

Mental health activist Frank and Stephen Enow in Northampton
Mental health activist Frank and Stephen Enow in Northampton

In 2003 he was sectioned under the mental health act and locked up against his will twice in six months. He was given a concoction of 25 drugs – and 25 more for the side-effects.

According to NHS Digital, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants has nearly doubled – rising from 36 million in 2008 to 67.5 million in 2017.

Frank doesn’t believe meds are the answer to solving Britain’s mental health crisis.

He adds: “Doctors have got to listen to patients and not just prescribe medication. Some of those drugs are highly addictive.

“There are other practical strategies we can give people.” The foundation is all about providing life skills to kids. It runs a 12-week programme of non-contact boxing training for up to 60 young people aged from 13 to 20.

The boxing legend with the Sunday Mirror's Emma Pryer
The boxing legend with the Sunday Mirror’s Emma Pryer

It helps them build confidence through training in the ring and general exercise, alongside classes in wellbeing, which includes learning about nutrition and mental health.

And Frank recognises himself as a kid in some of the youngsters, adding: “I met Pharrell, our 17-year-old ambassador, when we went to do a pilot for the foundation in schools. He did the programme and came out on top. I’m so proud of him.”

Like Pharrell, Frank was expelled from school. “I used to be a tearaway, a bully. I
was running wild,” he says.

“I had to get out of that area, before I got myself either shot, killed or in prison.

“I want to say I’m sorry to those people I may have hurt.”

His parents sent him to a tough reform school in Sussex, where suddenly he was the victim, frequently getting into fights and taking a beating.

It was a tough wake- up call. Frank channelled his energies into boxing from an early age.

He adds: “When I started boxing aged nine, when my dad bought me my first gloves, I knew that’s what I wanted. Suddenly I had focus.” Since hanging up his gloves in 1996, he’s become a long-term mental health advocate.

In 2007 he helped the Sunday Mirror launch it’s Time To Change campaign. He’s been to prisons and come face-to-face with teen killers.

Lucy Baze has praised the work Frank is doing to support young people's mental health
Lucy Baze has praised the work Frank is doing to support young people’s mental health

He has also visited schools across Britain to hear how people are trying to come out of hard times.

Frank says: “I have had people who have wanted to commit suicide who I have spoken to and later they have thanked me for making them realise they have a future. One had lost his legs and was in a wheelchair. I reminded him he had a lot of love around him and he says it helped him.”

Exercise has been, and always will be, a tower of strength for Frank.

He works daily on his own mental health and is planning to build a yoga “chillout” shed in the back garden of his Bedfordshire home.

“Last year I started doing yoga and meditation to calm my mind,” he says.

“I met a strong woman who was battling cancer and I helped talk to her about that. Now she teaches me.

“I was too busy fighting Mike Tyson to do yoga before!

“But it really helps me relax. Everyone has to work at their mental health.”

  • If you need to speak to someone, Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123.

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