'Muay Thai saved my life': Newcastle teenager sets up mental health project after suicide attempt

  • Katie Cole speaks to Kai Leighton about his Mental Shift project that helps people struggling with their mental health through combat sport


A 19-year-old has credited Muay Thai with saving his life after turning to the sport following a suicide attempt.

Kai Leighton from Newcastle tried to take his own life when he was 15 after struggling with his mental health.

He turned to Thailand's national sport in the months that followed, helping him to turn his life around.

"It's given me a sense of purpose," he told ITV Tyne Tees. "If I am ever a bad day or a bad week come to the gym."

"I was cast as a bad child in school," he told ITV Tyne Tees. "I did a lot of things that to me were a distraction. So when I threw books across the classroom that was distracting me from what was going on in my mind.

"It got quite bad to the point in which when I was 15 years old and I took an attempt on my life."

Kai Leighton turned to Muay Thai after a suicide attempt. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

His mental health has improved since then, something Kai credits to the Northern Kings Gym in Newcastle's West End. The gym's owner Craig Jose offered him free training for a year and it has had a transformative effect.

"Kai is a better version of himself," Mr Jose said. "I think that's what combat sports make you do.

"It makes just you test yourself all the time. You're not always going to have a good day. Sometimes you have a bad day and you just have to deal with that.

"The release of endorphins and the support of your teammates around you just helps build a stronger character."

Northern Kings Gym owner Craig Jose. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Kai has not been the only person to benefit from the gym which helps young people and adults across the Newcastle area.

"You get to talk to different people and get to know different peopleAnd then of of course you just hit the pads hard," gym member Michael Lloyd said. "If you've got a lot of anger you can come here and hit the bags.

"Or if I’m feeling under the weather or a bit down, I just come to the gym and it’s all gone."

Kai has been keen to ensure the positive effects can be felt far and wide, setting up the Mental Shift project as a result.

Young people are referred to the programme for 12 weeks of free coaching and are mentored by a professional fighter. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

With the support of the gym and working alongside schools, the youth justice service and charities, young people are referred to the programme for 12 weeks of free coaching and are mentored by a professional fighter.

"Many of the young people we work with don’t have that positive influence or a role model in their lives," Kai explained. "So these fighters will go out of their way to work with these young people and provide them with the support and guidance that they need.

"This is what changed my life and it saved my life. I'm very passionate about it, especially with the crisis around mental health in young men's mental health in particular.

"It's definitely something that is needed."

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