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Watch: Former Northern Ireland U18 captain Bobby Burns and classmates using sport to tackle two North Belfast issues

By Gareth Hanna

Forward-thinking pupils at St Malachy's College are hoping they've found a way to combat two of what they see as North Belfast's biggest issues.

The Antrim Road school hosted a 'bFit Sports Awareness Day' on Friday, aimed at combatting mental health issues and increasing participation levels - two issues they believe are closely linked. Year eight pupils from around the area were there to get to grips with rugby, ju-jitsu, wheelchair basketball, boxing and Thai kick-boxing during the day organised by a group of A2 students.

A report by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety released back in 2012 indicated that Belfast North and Belfast West are the two constituencies worst affected by suicide in Northern Ireland, with around 24 suicides per 100,000 persons.

And with the school directly impacted, Head Boy Bobby Burns says he and his fellow pupils wanted to help.

Here's how students at St. Malachy's College, including a former Northern Ireland U18 captain, are using sport to try...

Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport on Friday, December 15, 2017

"There have unfortunately been people linked to the school who have fallen to suicide in recent years and a lot more in the North Belfast area," he explained.

"Sport NI Chief Executive Antoinette McKeown has told us that participation rates in sports are low in this area as well so we wanted to marry the two ideas together to try and tackle these local problems."

As a promising footballer with Glenavon, tipped to become a star at a higher level, it makes sense that Burns would draw the link.

A report released by the Department for Communities in October claimed that half of Northern Ireland's young people felt that physical activity helped “develop their confidence.” And that's a finding that Bobby would very much endorse.

"Sport can really help your mental health," he said. "From my own experience, the team work and craic of playing with your mates can really improve your mental health and make you feel part of a community. On the other hand, if you have good mental health you're probably more likely to want to get involved in sport. The two go really well together so if we can encourage people to think more about their mental health and take part in sport, hopefully we can make some sort of positive impact on the local problem."

Cliftonville's star striker Joe Gormley and Belfast boxer Paddy Barnes were both in attendance but their host and former Northern Ireland Under 18 captain was quick to point out that the aim wasn't about making the kids into the next Bobby Burns.

"They could do that quite easily," he laughed. "It's all about participation rates. It's not about elite athletes at all. That's what we're really pushing, it's about getting the kids into sports and getting them to enjoy it.

"We tried to go for alternative sports that people haven't done before. Hopefully from that they might enjoy a sport that they maybe didn't even know existed and take part in that. It's about people having a bit of craic with their mates, not about finding the next black belt in judo."

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