Helen O’Callaghan reports


Rugby stars on mental health: ‘You don’t have to be in crisis to look for help’

Rugby stars are sharing their difficult off-field experiences in a campaign that encourages people to look after their mental well-being. Helen O’Callaghan reports

Rugby stars on mental health: ‘You don’t have to be in crisis to look for help’

Breaking his arm wasn’t Cathal Sheridan’s first or worst injury, but it put the Munster Rugby scrum-half into a very dark place.

The 27-year-old Sligo man has freed himself now from the dreary clutches of unprocessed negative emotion — he’s one of the primary faces of the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association’s new mental wellbeing campaign.

Tackle Your Feelings sees national and international rugby stars come forward to tell their own personal story of the issues they’ve faced off the pitch.

Sheridan’s November 2014 arm injury was tricky to detect and diagnose. He had repeated scans. He was in pain.

“I’d dealt well with earlier injuries. This one got under my skin. It really knocked me for six.”

He admits to feeling a bit blue in the months just before it happened.

“I wasn’t long back from a previous injury. I was naïve, thinking I’d be exactly the same player on the pitch. But there’s a bedding-in period, getting back to training — it takes a while to get back up to speed.”

In late 2014, things were bad.

“I’d turn up to training, thinking ‘maybe I’ll be fine’ but I wasn’t able to function as a rugby player. There was a lot of uncertainty, wondering ‘am I ever going to get back from this?’ My confidence took a big hit.”

He felt frustrated, angry, sad, upset.

“I was angry at the game. I started to blame the game for how I was feeling. I wasn’t enjoying the sport I’d loved since I was a young boy. Everybody else on the team would be going for coffee and a chat after training. I’d drive home, have an hour completely on my own and get more upset.”

Guilt set in, compounding the negativity. Close friends had suffered career-ending injuries right in front of him.

“I thought ‘what right have I to feel down?’ I shied away from telling anyone about it. People close to me had no notion how I was feeling.”

In the bid to hide what was really going on for him, another tack was to be overly positive about “everything else I was doing”.

Sheridan turned a corner last spring. The catalyst was “something very simple” — an encounter with a friend (“it’s not even an incredibly tight relationship”). He hadn’t seen this friend in a few years.

“He popped into my house. I thought ‘I need to make sure I’m in top form here’.”

He thinks his friend doesn’t even remember the couple of throwaway comments he made that were like “a switch going off” for the rugby player: ‘you just seem a little different, a little down, you don’t seem happy’.

It was a Eureka moment.

“I thought ‘he’s right. I’ve spent the guts of the last year in a bad place and I’ve allowed it to happen’.”

He started admitting his feelings, saying ‘I’m pissed off, I’m upset’.

“I realised if I ignored negative emotions, it gave them more power. I was fortunate to have very close family and friends around me.”

You have to find a process that will take you through, says Sheridan.

“It doesn’t just happen. You can’t wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m going to be happy today’. You might get a burst tyre or someone might spill coffee on you. The other day, I was tempted to go home, get into bed, watch Game of Thronesand not talk to anyone — that would have made things worse, not that there’s anything wrong with Game of Thrones!”

Instead he took his dog, Ralph, for a walk. He rang his friends and met them for coffee.

“When your confidence is low, you assume your friends are all seeing you as you see yourself. You meet them and talk about nothing — maybe some completely innocuous thing that happened at work — and what was going through your head dissipates and you feel a million times better.”

It’s ok, says Sheridan, to feel angry and upset — everybody does sometimes.

“Be honest about what’s going on, reflect on why it’s happening and put in a process that works for you. You’ll find a bad morning doesn’t turn into a bad day. I didn’t do that, so a bad week turned into a bad month turned into a bad year.”

Sheridan’s video launched last week on new website www.tackleyourfeelings.com.

It follows that of Ireland and Leinster front-row Jack McGrath, who spoke about how he coped with the death of his brother by suicide in 2010, and Hannah Tyrrell’s — the Irish women’s player talked about how she overcame her struggles with self-harm and bulimia.

The now 25-year-old UCD student used to feel like she wasn’t “pretty enough, not a good enough daughter or friend, not good enough at school or sport”.

Realising in her early 20s that friends and family really cared about her (“I wasn’t just a burden to everybody”), hugely boosted her self-belief.

“You don’t have to be in crisis to come forward and look for help. People say ‘I’m going through a bad few weeks’. They leave it — it snowballs. This campaign is about getting people to come forward earlier, so they can get on with their life sooner.”

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