Speaking at a mental health conference, Olympian Kenneth Egan said people have never felt more alone, despite living in a world where we are more connected than ever before.
The former boxer opened up about his alcohol addiction and said he has learned the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connectivity, but warned that that sense of connectivity has been lost by many people.
“The human race has lost connection,” he said. “We don’t talk to each other anymore. When do we sit down with someone face-to-face, eye-to-eye and have a real, genuine conversation? It’s very, very rare.”
Mr Egan said that, when it comes to mental health, it is “so important to share your stories and share your struggles with people that are there to listen”.
“You know when you start telling a story when someone is half-listening,” he said. “They have one hand on the mobile phone and all they want is snapshots of your conversation. Because of mobile phones and social media and the internet, that’s the way we’re gone. We don’t talk anymore and that’s a serious problem we have.”
Waterford councillor Liam Brazil, who organised the two-day conference in Dungarvan, echoed Mr Egan’s fears.
“Young children these days are missing out on a real childhood,” said Mr Brazil. “When we were young we climbed trees, cut our hands, and cut our knees and we cried. Young girls used to get a doll for Christmas or their birthday and a boy might get a football. Now they get laptops.”
Mr Egan, who is studying for a degree in addiction studies and also serves as a Fine Gael councillor in South Dublin, believes personal development should be taught as a subject in primary and secondary schools.
“If I had any power, I would be getting personal development in the schools,” he said. “It’s so important for kids to know it’s OK to share their problems in the right environment and I think schools are the perfect place to do it, but it needs to be much earlier than it is now.”
The Olympic star also opened up about the turmoil he suffered following his silver medal win at the Beijing games in 2008.
The 10-time Irish champion said his greatest fight now lies outside the ring with his inner demons.
“First and foremost I am an alcoholic,” he said, addressing a room of more than 200 people.
“Once I accepted defeat and accepted I had a problem, I came out the winner.”
However, asking for help was one of the hardest things to do and he refused to speak in AA meetings for the first three months, said Mr Egan.
“I’m not supposed to be an alcoholic. I am an Olympic silver medallist,” he said. “I thought I shouldn’t be here. I should be mentally well but inside I was screaming. I needed help. I needed to stop the life I was living or I was going to end up in a coffin.”
Mr Egan, who has been sober for more than five years, said giving up alcohol was his biggest achievement.
“I protect my sobriety like it’s the crown jewel,” he said. “The medal has nothing on it.”
Cavan footballer Alan O’Mara, one of the first inter-county GAA players to go public about his battle with depression, also spoke.