Photo of Sharon Burke

Sharon Burke

Sharon Burke is the founder of The James Burke Foundation. She says “This journey started when my only son took his own life in April 2017. He was talented, beautiful and kind. He played rugby league at an international level and was a law student at Leeds University. James’s death and the absolute eradication of everything I thought I knew. It created a burning desire to change society, make a difference and to be heard.

My mission is to remove the stigma around mental health issues, encourage debate, and offer educational interventions so that whole societies have ownership for mental health wellbeing. We will do this by early intervention and discussion.

My mission is to speak to the world! I’m trying to turn this devastation into a positive, ensuring James didn’t live and die for no reason.”

Who will it help/who has it helped already?

“The Foundation makes no distinction between gender, race or any other label. My belief is that everyone has responsibility for mental health within their society. The services offered have been dramatically cut and are, overall, not fit for purpose.

They wait until people are in crisis and adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach, ignoring the fact that the incidence of suicide is rising year on year. My approach has empowered a diverse range people to speak out, to share stories and develop coping mechanisms.

As a result, I have worked with students at Leeds University to establish peer-to-peer groups and start a big conversation, initially within the rugby league section.

Who has it helped is a difficult question to answer. I have messages and emails that say, ‘you saved my life’, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.’ On the face of it, they are the target group. It’s their families, friends and networks. They are the hidden group who I believe have been really helped as they will take the message forward.”

What’s worked?

“Sharing my story, which is incredibly painful, stripping my feelings bare in a very public arena empowers others to talk about their experiences and feelings. The discussions, admissions and inevitable realisation from individuals that they have /are struggling for the first time in a public arena has been so fulfilling.

Individuals have felt empowered to share their stories, often for the first time, to seek help and counselling. It has created a desire within them to help others. The ripple effect is so powerful. I often use the quote ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.’

I have spoken to hundreds of people. The motion that I wrote for the union, Unite to have wellbeing representatives in every workplace, was passed at their annual conference  It’s some years away but that journey has started.”

What have you learnt? Any challenges?

“There have been many huge challenges. I have been personally attacked and lost my job recently, as I am a liability, apparently. I have learnt that people I have helped, whom I thought were friends, turned their backs on me.

I have learnt the true meaning of loneliness but above all that I have learnt that this message is so important, that it is needed and that I must continue. The challenges have mostly come from the established organisations. This also challenges with my own self-doubt which I continually work to overcome, particularly now I no longer have my son. He was my sounding board.

Securing funding to enable me to move the Foundation to the next level despite all the obstacles is a challenge, as is continuing with the daily heartbreak I feel.”

What’s next?

“To continue to grow the Foundation. Try and develop robust partnerships with like-minded organisations and individuals to effect change.  My aspiration is to work for the Foundation on a full-time basis. I also want to publish the book I have been writing, which is a no-holds barred life story.”

What advice, contacts or resources would help you?

I’m sure that there is advice that would benefit me and the Foundation that I have not even considered, but advice on publicising the message, contact with influencers who can help endorse our vision.

I have an aspiration to create a non-clinical ‘referral’ centre, initially in Leeds but my dream would be one in every city where people can come, relax, talk and feel safe. Any suggestions or available space that could be developed would help. I would be grateful for any and all help or suggestions.”

Why we’re sharing these stories

An individual or organisation from each of our five categories will be recognised at our Igniting Inspiration recognition event in November, but we want to publish all relevant stories to spread awareness of all the positive work that goes on in the North!

What to do if you’re worried a loved one is thinking of taking their life

If you’re concerned that a loved one is contemplating taking their life, don’t worry about raising the subject with them. Your conversation won’t make them act.

As an individual, you’re not expected to make a judgement call. It is up to experts to do this. Your responsibility is to report it to a trained professional and let them decide on the most appropriate course of action.

This can include the police and charities such as CALM (call 0800 58 58 58) or The Samaritans (call 24 hours a day on 116 123 in the UK).

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