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GAA & Mental Health

GAA and Mental Health

It’s not uncommon to look at sports stars and feel perplexed as to how they are not fulfilled by success, notoriety or the financial trappings. Forgive the language, but we’ve all heard throwaway comments such as “I’d die happy if I won…” a Premier League, World Cup or whatever it may be. Staying more local, how about winning an All Ireland and dying happy? The problem, as is becoming more and more clear, is living happily after it. Continuing to feel like you have a goal, or resting easy after that has been achieved. If you have not quite lived up to your own expectations, then carrying that cross with you. Indeed it could be none of those reasons, being a sporting person might be incidental.

Whatever the reasons for a person’s depression, addiction or other mental issues, there is no rung of the class ladder unaffected by it. Nor the sporting one either. In Ireland, suicide is an epidemic and specifically among young men. Gary Speed’s tragic passing is a reminder of how widespread the problem is, and it allows us to reflect on what is a massive issue in Ireland. Anyone who has not been affected by a suicide is a lucky exception going by the high rates in this country; few are without a tragic story.

A couple of years back, a young man took his life in Munster and, in small villages such as his, the news spread like wildfire. For those who witnessed Shay Given’s tear-strewn face before the Swansea game on Sunday, they got an indication of just how torn up that small corner of Tipp was. Including the young men who were up all night before a county hurling final trying to understand why a companion would take his own life. As you might imagine, sleep and hurling took a back seat that night and morning. But because the young man was not an immediate relation of any player on the team, the game went ahead. The loss on the field paled to that off it.

“Well men between the ages of 18 to 35 or 36 is the highest demographic of suicides,” says Pio Fenton, Director of Cork Samaritans, who this year launched a suicide prevention scheme with Cork GAA clubs. “We’ve a lot of volunteers in our Cork branch – 180 – with a lot involved who maybe had people in their clubs taking their own lives. And maybe what got me thinking about it (this initiative) was that I was aware of a situation in my own club where someone took their own life, and how much the GAA rallied around the family. And how they became a bedrock of support for the community that was really in shock.

“That’s where the idea came from because the GAA is in every parish, and almost in every home. So what we’re trying to do is take advantage of the structure that’s there to identify people of that age who are going through a tough time, and could be managing to hide it quite well. Or who are maybe showing little signs of it but there’s maybe a fear of approaching them and maybe asking them if everything is okay.”

The Cork Samaritans went about this by contacting the Cork county board and speaking to their delegates in June, before distributing packs to each club with materials to display and distribute. They included advice on what to do and where to seek advice. Not only that but the Samaritans held training courses to help approach players or people they felt were in trouble. “We’re fairly certain it led to people contacting us,” Fenton added.

Has there been an attitude shift in relation to mental health in recent years, we ask? “It’s hard to say… the nature of the problem is so big that any change is probably only small at first. There’s an issue around emotional health in Ireland and there has been for decade and decades – it’s only slowly organisations are chipping away at it.

“What I could say about GAA players, soccer players and rugby players, in particular, is that there is an expectation that you get on with it. Because you’re seen in a leadership-type role, you just have to be able to cope with the sort of things that some people just see as part of everyday life. In reality, they are things that are weighing heavily on people’s minds and people can’t talk about them because of those expectations.”

There seems to be a clawing inevitability that a high-profile Irish sportsman – in or outside the GAA – will at some point take their own life. Abhorrent as the very notion is. The suicide rate, the stifling economic depression and the tendency for young men to take that step suggests so. It would make you think, among others, of former Meath footballer Liam Hayes whose who lost a brother tragically, and Cork footballer Noel O’Leary whose cousin and brother both took their own lives not long after break-ups.

"I think it was a pure spur-of-the-moment thing,” said O’Leary to the Sunday Tribune in 2007. “It and drink. In most of these cases that's what it is: a spur-of-the-moment decision brought on by the drink. Looking back, [my brother] Ciaran wouldn't have been the best to take drink. He was only 17, a bit of a wild lad but a good lad, but you could see that he used to get upset after drink."

Caroline Currid, along with Alan Quinlan, last week launched the ‘Lean On Me’ campaign which aims to tackle depression. “I have seen it (mental health issues) within the GAA but not with the teams I’ve worked with,” says Currid, who has worked as a performance coach with All Ireland winners Tyrone, Tipperary and Dublin. “In general, the lads are great at opening up.

“For teams that don’t have that, if you want to go private, it costs a lot of money. People don’t have that money. It’s very hard for young men or women to go seek that help on their own. A lot of lads that have come to me – now not those within the teams I’ve worked with – with mental health issues would not know how to open up and talk about feelings. It just wasn’t in their psyche at all. It’s something that night never have happened within their family or social network of friends.

“Myself and Alan Quinlan ran the ‘Lean on Me’ campaign last week and a lot of people came up to us afterwards. Again, not people in teams I worked with but people in Tipperary, Dublin and Wexford where we ran it who struggled with issues. Alan himself did until he picked up the phone.

“We are running it again next year; 170 people turned up for it at Clonmel, about 150 each night in Dublin and about 80 in Wexford. A huge turnout and a lot of young people, a lot of males who wanted to express themselves and talk about what was going on for them. A lot of them came up to me afterwards and said they couldn’t afford to get help because they don’t have the money.

“There are organisations such as Aware and Bernardos but, you know, in small counties people often don’t want to go to them places because of the stigma attached to depression and suicidal thoughts.”

In the male-dominated environments that sport offer, feelings can sometimes have little place. Footballer Richard Sadlier spoke of his time at Millwall and how he would not discuss his problems within the club for fear of how it might affect any future deals. Again, a young person worried about a sign of weakness when leadership was demanded.

“I was watching a video on YouTube of one of the All Blacks from 1984-94, John Kirwan,” says Fenton. “Basically he had a huge problem with depression and he said it to one of his coaches or teammates and the reaction was “All Blacks don’t cry”.

“People have to be willing to open up and talk about these things, and not just dismiss mental health as sad or pathetic. You have to take it for what it is.”

With the work of the Samaritans, Lean on Me and other such organisations, hopefully it will be.

Chat to Shane Stapleton on Twitter @shanesaint