Irish society still has a long way to go in addressing mental health issues

Irish society still has a long way to go in addressing mental health issues

By Peter McNamara

People, by now, would have read or heard about former Donegal footballer Eamon McGee discussing his struggles with anxiety and alcohol.

McGee is the latest in a growing list of sportspeople that have revealed personal information about themselves that many individuals in society can relate to.

Generally, characters like McGee will hope, by them speaking out, others suffering with issues such as anxiety can take a little solace from the fact even successful sportspeople are not bulletproof to life’s challenges.

Additionally, the more conversations that are had in the public domain regarding mental health-related issues, the stigmas attached to these ailments decreases. That is the outcome sought, anyway.

McGee was chatting to ex-Cavan goalkeeper Alan O’Mara, who himself revealed in the past that he contended with depression and, thankfully, returned from the brink to be a stronger person today, on the Real Talks podcast.

“I think it was apparent that I struggled off the field and as a result of that, I struggled on the field, too,” McGee explained. “For me, it was just culture at the time. The lads all enjoyed the pints, didn’t take things too seriously.

“It suited me but none of the lads suffered from anxiety attacks or panic attacks or they didn’t develop a dangerous relationship with alcohol.

“That was part of what happened to me. All them lads grew out of that, I never grew out of that phase then. That’s where I was at.

“A big enough social scene was a big part of it and unfortunately, I had other things going on in the background, too. When you add that in, it was just a bad combination. It wasn’t conducive to an elite athlete.

“For me, buses was a big one. I’m sitting on the bus sweating, on the way to college. You don’t want anyone else to know. You’re jittery, it was a wild struggle to hide it. You’re thinking you’re going to die here, you’re going to have a heart attack on a bus. It’s tight stuff.”

On the law of averages, there is probably at least one person in each team in every sport at every age-grade upwards of minor or youth levels battling with anxiety and/or mental health illnesses.

Problem is, maybe nobody on his or her team, aside from the person themselves, is aware of it.

This is potentially as problematic to the situation as the situation itself.

Thing is, none of us were ever taught how to truly recognise such issues in others and how best to deal with same.

Maybe it’s time people were taught. Literally.

Of course, some cases are obvious to close friends and family of an individual. However, what about those suffering in silence? Some individuals have an unfortunately canny knack of papering over the cracks, which, ultimately, can be detrimental.

The time has come for the top brass presiding over team sports in the country, to roll out programming which can teach players to see the signs in those possibly struggling around them.

If an individual has an inkling a team-mate of theirs is finding life a little tricky at a given time that person should be armed with the knowledge as to how best to approach the situation and allay a person’s concerns, first-hand if necessary.

The likes of the GAA have initiatives in place whereby those faced with mental health problems can acquire professional help.

A lot would be said, however, for a more attack-minded approach from the powers that be in terms of group education on these topical issues.

It could even be a case this is a broader point the Government should consider when it comes to school curricula.

In 2011, the Mindfulness Matters programme was introduced to primary schools in this country.

Sanctioned by the Department of Education, the programme proved to be hugely beneficial for young kids.

Mindfulness Matters represents a medium through which children are getting invaluable education on the awareness of their own emotional wellbeing and the emotional wellbeing of those in their classrooms.

Yet, further education should be put in place for secondary school students and at clubs across the land.

Would it hurt to dedicate one or two training sessions at least to listening and learning from an expert in the field of mental health and its associated areas so that players are better equipped at acknowledging when a team-mate is not feeling as well as possible? Or so they can acknowledge in themselves and seek help from their team-mates and coaches?

Have no doubt there are clubs in Ireland that have already managed to achieve this in some shape or form.

However, the Government and sporting hierarchies should consider getting together to make it compulsory for youths and adults alike to be educated properly on these vital life issues.

Monies should be set aside by the Government to fund this as well. Both in the classrooms and dressing rooms, people need to become more aware of the wellbeing of others as well as themselves in order to minimise the risks attached to helpless ignorance.

An increase in the awareness of those in your day-to-day circles could guard against the associated problems with alcohol that McGee encountered, or, at worst, contain the issue.

That’s not to say there were those around McGee oblivious to his problems.

Yet, as was illustrated, there are those that find ways of bottling up their worries and it is those people such an initiative could aid the most.

Creating a mental health education pathway which could run both in secondary schools and in sports clubs could make a significant difference to the increasing numbers of people suffering mental health illnesses.

Were kids to be taught in schools, supplementary education could then be provided by sports clubs, even once or twice a year, when those kids’ school days have ended.

It would be truly helpful if a programme was devised and implemented which ensured people of all ages were regularly reminded of how to best to manage life, even in their sporting circles.

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