'We're building a cause people believe in' - Why LooseHeadz continue to lead the way in tackling stigma around mental health

Looseheadz co-founders Rob Shotton (left) and Dave Nicoll (right) with England and Sale's Manu Tuilagi

The first fallow week of the Six Nations is here.

After two compelling rounds, the pause button has been pressed on the championships until next weekend when we will once again be gripped by the action which will include England’s trip to Scotland.

With Manu Tuilagi possibly in contention for Steve Borthwick’s side, his comeback from a groin injury will only add to the array of star names who have shone in the tournament so far.

But while we laud the likes of Finn Russell, Joe McCarthy and Tommy Reffell, it is important to remember that these icons of our sport are human.

Perhaps the Six Nations documentary, Full Contact - which aired on Netflix last month - pulled back the curtain to highlight some of the challenges which our stars go through on a personal level.

In particular, the episode focusing on Ireland’s Andrew Porter is a powerful one. The prop opens up about coping with family tragedy and dealing with his struggles whilst continuing to operate on the biggest of stages.

Maybe less than a decade or so ago, the term rugby and mental health may have looked uncomfortable sitting side by side but the stigma attached to expressing how you feel is slowly being tackled.

And arguably at the forefront of this movement are LooseHeadz, the mental health charity.

“LooseHeadz was founded six and a bit years ago,” says Rob Shotton, co-founder of LooseHeadz. "It was a conversation I had at the end of our local rugby club bar [Wilmslow RUFC] in 2017 whilst the Lions tour was on.

“Three of us, myself, my old man [Mark - Rob’s Dad] and Dave [Nicoll] were all talking about our rugby stories, our rugby journeys we've been on etc but more importantly, about the people that we met along the way - our mates that had had a bit of a life wobble that we couldn't really feel like we could do anything positive for.

“What felt like a bit of a typical bloke thing was giving them a pat on the back and telling them they'll be alright. That drove us and helped us to create what is now called LooseHeadz where we've been on one hell of a journey over the last six years.

“Two things that we realised when we first started were we weren't experts so what we do is work within what we call the ‘LooseHeadz square’ which is ‘Prevent, Promote, Educate and Signpost.’ They are the four key pillars that we live and breathe.

“The other thing that we realised is that no one wants to talk about mental health. Unfortunately, that's the world we live in. When people hear the word mental health, they tend to run a mile so what we've always wanted to try and do is link up what rugby offers; the camaraderie, that togetherness and the clubhouse feel. We tried to use the positive aspects of the rugby community by doing something positive within the mental health space.”

LooseHeadz’s mission is to support rugby clubs around the world by giving them access to mental health resources and selecting a person at a club as a mental health lead.

“There are 16,500 rugby clubs in the world,” Rob continues.“We're now working with 930 clubs. The way we work with the rugby clubs is we give them access to a toolkit and give them the right confidence to be able to champion mental health within their own small community.”

And because of this, LooseHeadz’s overall community continues to grow and grow.

Part of the charity’s fabric is the increasing number of ‘ambassadors’ who have helped #TackleTheStigma, including stars currently playing in the Six Nations such as Italy’s Seb Negri.

Some of the biggest names in the sport have been involved in photoshoots, podcasts, social media content, the list goes on but they have all consistently supported the charity.

“We have just over 50 ambassadors and we wouldn't be where we are today without them,” Rob says.

"We have the ambassadors and two panels, the rugby advisory panels as well. They're people like Ugo Monye, Craig Doyle, Danielle ‘Nolli’ Waterman and Maggie Alphonsi who open doors to the rugby world.

“We also have the mental health panel - there are 14 experts in there, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health professionals who all have an interest in rugby so without the ambassadors and rugby advisory panel and mental health expert panel, I don't think we’d be where we are today without their support. They're huge.

“They all buy into the cause and want to help. Our first ambassador was Sam James who plays for Sale and our latest ambassador is Seb Negri.”

Despite LooseHeadz being around for a long time and with it now being Rob's full-time job working for the charity, he admits he still has to pinch himself seeing people in LooseHeadz stash in different places.

“I wouldn't want to say it's become normal because it's still a mad moment when it happens but it happens more often now which is quite surreal.

“I've been to a few rugby games this season and I always see a LooseHeadz hoodie or a LooseHeadz bobble hat, that's really cool. The players wearing it is very cool. Manu Tuilagi often gets stick for wearing all LooseHeadz kit to training at Sale! People wear it casually and not just to a rugby game which is very cool. We talk about wearing the posts with pride and seeing people do that is awesome and a proud moment for us. We're building a community and a cause people believe in ''.

And one such name who wears the posts with pride is England legend Rocky Clark MBE.

Clark played in four World Cups for England, winning the tournament in 2014, and earned 137 caps for her country. She has been an ambassador for LooseHeadz for just over a year.

“Rocky is ace, she's a very cool character and we've had her on board for just over a year and a half,” Rob says. “Rocky has had her own struggles and she's very open about it. It's great to have people like that on board.

“Rocky has become a good friend of ours. Having someone on board who's completely herself and who's honest is what makes her a perfect ambassador - she's amazing. Her accolades and achievements speak for herself as a player - she's really cool.”

“My job is to shout about LooseHeadz and get the message out there!” Clark begins. I'm quite open about my mental health, I’ve had a few struggles over the last few years so it's something that's really close to my heart. I want to be able to help others and promote the charity by supporting them if they need it. I help signpost them to the right person and give them support.”

Not only do LooseHeadz work with some of the most recognisable names in the game, but their passion for supporting grassroots rugby is undeniable.

The team recently met up with women's rugby player, Mollie who plays at Crewe and Nantwich RFC. Mollie has OCD and recently got a LooseHeadz tattoo.

“It was very surreal,” reflects Rob. “I got in touch with Mollie and we found out she's the 11th person to get a LooseHeadz tattoo which is pretty crazy. Two people in Canada have also recently got a tattoo as well - we definitely can't change our logo anytime soon!

“Dave and I are also going to get the tattoo done and do a piece of content on it. At the end of last year, we visited Mollie and spoke about her battle with OCD. She was diagnosed with OCD at the age of 12 but she spoke about how rugby has been her saviour and she wanted to get a tattoo to spread her love, wear the posts with pride permanently and tackle the stigma. She was ace and so lovely to meet.

“It's really cool to spend time with people in our community and to give back to those that have shown us some love - that's important. One of our values at LooseHeadz is the importance of community and we'll never lose sight of what started as a conversation at a bar between some mates. We started it to help a couple of our own mates but we want to help as many people as we can. Hopefully, we're doing our little bit to support others.”

‘Supporting others’ perhaps underpins one of LooseHeadz’s major announcements towards the end of last year when Vodafone became their new official connectivity partner.

Mental health leads at rugby clubs across the UK will now receive free mobile connectivity, keeping them connected to club members when they need it most.

All LooseHeadz partner clubs in the UK can apply for free Vodafone SIM cards through LooseHeadz, via the ‘everyone.connected’ initiative.

“We're still only a very small team (Dave and I) and a very young charity even though we’ve been going for six years so all the support we can get from fundraisers and corporate sponsorship is something we're trying to do a lot more of and I can't thank them enough, they've been super supportive,” adds Rob.

“To be able to link up with Vodafone was a very special moment and I think it's quite a clear crossover what the organisation is all about. We're a mental health charity and they're all about connecting people and making sure people can stay connected so there's quite a lot of crossover there.

“Before it was announced, we’d been chatting to them for 18 months so it's great to now see it come to life and to have our logo next to theirs - it's very special. We’ve also done some work with Charles Tyrwhitt so we're very grateful to them as well as X Ledger. They were the first corporate partners to put their money where their mouth was and support LooseHeadz.”

In addition to these partnerships, LooseHeadz recently hit what they described as a ‘monumental milestone’ in their journey as they were announced as a charity partner of the British and Irish Lions.

From discussing the idea of LooseHeadz when watching the Lions in 2017 to becoming a charity partner of the iconic institution, you do get a sense that a journey has come full circle.

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For all the steps and progression LooseHeadz continues to make though, perhaps a moment last year is why Rob and the team remain so passionate about changing - and saving - people’s lives.

“Last year, LooseHeadz saved a 16-year-old girl's life,” Rob reveals. “The girl saw one of LooseHeadz's inspiration posts on Instagram and it prevented her from committing suicide.

“We received a message from her on Instagram which said, “I logged onto Instagram to say my final goodbye to my friends but I saw a LooseHeadz post about not giving up and I wanted to say thank you because you saved my life.

“The last two years have been tough but it’s also been brilliant and we hope we’re saving a few lives in the process.”

From starting a conversation at their local rugby club to now working for the charity full-time, Rob and LooseHeadz are tackling the stigma around mental health more than ever before and are inspiring many to join the movement.