Headstart: Irish sports stars lead the way on mental health awareness

Courageous sports stars are helping to deepen our awareness of mental health but a lot more needs to be done, says Kieran Shannon

FOR an idea of how much sportspeople have participated in the conversation about mental health in this country, hazard a guess as to the sportsperson, as well as reflect on the wisdom, behind the following statement:

Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to ‘be a man’. Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own

"So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook. I thought about mental health as someone else’s problem. But mental health is an invisible thing that touches all of us at some point or another. This is an everyone thing. No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt – and they can really hurt us if we keep them buried inside.”

If your guess was Alan Quinlan, after how the former Munster player opened up in his 2011 book and on the subsequent Lean On Me awareness campaign, good try but no.

HEAD START: Irish women’s player, Hannah Tyrrell at the 2016 launch of Rugby Players Ireland’s ‘Tackle Your Feelings’, a mental wellbeingcampaign.

Likewise, if you reckoned it was former Cork hurler Conor Cusack straight from the GPA’s 2014 We Wear More campaign. Or Irish hockey international and Olympian Paul Gleghorne; he was a year short of being 29 when in 2015 he blogged about his ‘secret’. Or Leinster’s Jack McGrath when he participated in the Irish rugby’s players union’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign in 2016.

The aforementioned quote is from 2018. And an American, one of the highest-paid sportspeople on the planet.

Kevin Love, who recently signed a $120 million, four-year extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers, is an NBA world basketball champion and Olympic gold medalist. Yet for all the accolades and honours he’s won, he maintains that speaking last March about his panic attacks and mental wellbeing is the best thing he has done in his career.

There was a reason he hadn’t spoken earlier.

I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak… or weird

But then fellow All Star DeMar DeRozan tweeted, “This depression gets the best of me”. Love decided DeRozan shouldn’t be the only one.

Since opening up, Love has had multiple players open up to him and been inundated with correspondence from the public. Last month the NBA hired its first director of mental health and wellness. But that it took so long for the best-paid league in world sport to create such a position and for a figure like Love to emerge — seven years after Quinlan, five years after Conor Cusack on Prime Time with Miriam, three years after rugby international Hannah Tyrrell spoke about self-harm — indicates how progressive Irish sports figures and organisations have been in mental health advocacy.

“When you use the example of ‘tough’ sportsmen and women, especially from a sport like rugby, it’s more likely to increase people’s awareness of mental health and for them to support someone else,” says Dr Gavin Breslin, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Ulster University and the editor of the upcoming book Mental Health and Wellbeing Interventions in Sport.

“We’ve conducted studies with students, athletes and people working in business and found that when you use the example of athletes who sought help, they’re more likely to seek and offer help. That’s the power sport and role models can have. ‘Well, if it can happen to them, it can happen to me.’”

It was that realisation which prompted Rugby Players Ireland’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign.

When a sports role model talks about being vulnerable and the importance of looking after your mental health, it removes a stigma, a barrier

- says Créde Sheehy-Kelly, the sports psychologist who initiated and managed the campaign.

In her work as a player development manager for Leinster rugby, she’d noticed how it was often off-the-field issues — lack of sleep, a row with a girlfriend, a bereavement – that was affecting on-field performance. That prompted her to conduct a number of collective workshops with players on how they could look after their mental health and when she learned how useful players found them, she recognised this was something that could benefit the general population.

Although corporately sponsored, Tackle Your Feelings wasn’t some cynical PR campaign. It was grounded on scientific theory and research. Before any player publicly told their story they had to first see a counsellor, receive educational training from clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy, speak to their families about how the campaign might affect them, and also meet with consultants as to what details they might wish to keep private.

Marcus Horan, the former Irish prop, was an ambassador for that programme and someone who rolled it out in his work as Rugby Players Ireland’s Munster player development manager. His own story wasn’t particularly headline grabbing, just about the ways he tries to manage stress daily.

“The programme was about these small things you can practise every day,” says Horan. “Looking after your mental health isn’t just for people dealing with suicidal thoughts. A way of looking after yourself can be something as simple as calling your mum or dad, or taking the dog for a walk, or meeting up a friend, that you don’t feel isolated.”

Yet for all the strides sport has made in mental health advocacy, there is an appreciation it has a long way to go. “It’s definitely an issue that is talked about more but there is still a big stigma there,” says Sheehy-Kelly.

To help address that, the next Tackle Your Feelings campaign will be going into the schools and prioritising 15-18 year-olds, so a younger generation has more psychological skills and strategies to call upon than its predecessors had.

Dr Breslin has helped draft a policy for mental health in sport for Northern Ireland in which the aspiration is that not just every sports association but every sports club should have a trained wellbeing officer.

In sport, like society, we tend to be reactive in our approach. Say if something awful happens to a club member, the response is to get something in, be it a suicide awareness or first aid programme. I’d prefer if we were more proactive

“And that means taking a more holistic view of a person. We know how sport can operate: wanting to be selected for a team but perhaps being left off; if you’re injured, trying to fight through it; the culture of win at all costs. But mental health and fitness mean giving people, from underage up, a sense of competency and that they’re appreciated and supported. In essence, it’s about simply being kind to one another while operating in a competitive environment.”

As GAA community and health manager, Regan, a former Leitrim footballer, deals with critical cases every day: a club calling about a player they’ve lost through suicide, or a desperate father ringing up because his son up there in Dublin, not far from Regan in Croke Park, is on the verge of going the same way. The goal has to be that it doesn’t get that far.

For all the nuggets contained in the GAA’s Play In My Boots pack and the popularity of the Healthy Club pilot scheme involving 150 clubs across the land, so much more needs to be done, like having a well-being officer in every club so every club can be healthy — and holistic.

“We tend to look at this bubble of mental health as out on its own but it’s basically the integration of all aspects of our lives. The research shows that the most damaging cause of a person’s mental health is exclusion: a feeling of being excluded from the tribe. So that means understanding that no club should allow any young member to be stuck sitting on the bench.

“And then catering for the ageing in our community. From our work with Trinity College and TILDA (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging) we’re learning that the most important predictor of health and happiness is the strength of the meaningful social connections in our lives.”

Regan has seen the power that goes with a player opening up about their mental health. “When a county player speaks about his or her personal experiences, we would receive a flurry of communication here at national level from the clubs,” he says.

In all his time he has never seen a response like that when Conor Cusack revealed with such eloquence his struggles with depression. In recent months Regan has again sat down with Cusack as well as Dublin footballer Nicole Owens, another openly gay player, and Moninne Griffith, executive director of BeLonG To, the support group for young members of the LGBT community, with a view of establishing a culture and diversity workgroup. If the GAA wants to further promote mental health they’re people it needs to listen to.

“We have a significant silent membership who just don’t feel as if they can express that element of their identity within the GAA fraternity,” says Regan. “And yet we know that members of the LGBT community are much more likely to experience suicidal thoughts because of the stigma and homophobia that still exists in society. So if we’re genuine about sport being for all and allow people to express their identity, we need to first of all to check the language we use in changing rooms.”

Sport has begun the conversation about mental health. But it has a lot more to talk about and to do.


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