What’s happening today?
From Smiles to Suicide: The mental health of Irish people in London. I met Claire Barry, the CEO of Mind Yourself, in Ruislip and she invited me to talk about sport and mental health at a suicide awareness event for Irish people in London.
Since the death of Galway hurler Niall Donohue there’s been more made of mental health and the GAA…
There are stories like Conor Cusack [former Cork hurler], Alan Maher [Cavan goalkeeper] and Seamie O’Donnell from Limerick. They have all spoken about their own battles with depression and it’s a good thing.
I don’t think a lot of people in the wider public realise what sometimes goes on with players especially at the higher level. You see one person on the pitch but you don’t necessarily see what goes on in their lives the other days of the week.
What do you mean?
There are pressures associated with playing GAA and for example there might be self-image issues. Some people might find it hard to relate to the person they think they are and the person other people see them as.
Have you experience of that or spoken to a player who has experienced that?
Yes, a guy I played rugby with who committed suicide when he was 19 or 20. That was in Ireland in Galwegians rugby club.
The year before he moved away from playing, he would have been one of the top players on the team and the next thing he just stopped and we saw him less and less. Then we got word that he had passed away.
In the context of sport is there a culture that needs to change?
You hear the cliché sometimes of managers who say when you cross the white line, be someone you are not. It’s a bit of a contradiction and when younger players are hearing that they may question themselves a bit, especially if they hear it a lot.
Do you have any wider experience of these issues?
When I studied my masters in Jordanstown University, my research was based on the role of the coach and the development of young players.
After our parents, a sports coach is the next most influential person in a young person’s life. It is something that Croke Park are addressing. They are launching a pilot scheme on the role that coaches have in young players’ development.
What are your thoughts on dealing with mental health issues within the GAA?
No matter what player you are, if you are playing Junior B level or inter-county, it is vitally important that you talk to people. It is vital that people talk about it or we are going to have more tragic cases — the like of what has happened to Niall Donohue.
Have you noticed any change in attitude?
Young people on Twitter and Facebook, they can express their opinion in an instant. A younger generation are coming up; they do express themselves a lot more freely and a lot more openly and that’s a good thing.
How do you create an environment where players feel comfortable to talk about depression or anxiety?
I’m not an expert, my understanding is that it impacts on people differently and the triggers are different. It is very hard to pinpoint but you have to have the facilities that, if a person does suffer from it, there is a facility for them to talk and go and get help.
Is the role of the GAA in Britain simply a sporting one?
You come over here and the GAA is the first port of call for many. In your first training session you are going to meet 15-20 guys who have shared the experience of emigrating. So you are going to have that instant bond with them.
At least then if you are a bit homesick and if you are at a training session you can see lads that have shared that experience and it’s easier to talk to lads who have gone through it and see what they did.
Has that been your experience as a top level player with London?
London GAA manager Paul Coggins is a very good man-manager and he has an excellent idea of what is going on with everybody.
He will go around and have a word with different players if he sees they are always bubbly at training and having a laugh and then one day they are all quiet. He is the manager who will say: ‘You are not yourself tonight, what’s up?’ It is good that Paul is like that.
Even all the lads would know after spending enough time with people, you get to know what they are like and you know their personalities and you know if something is bothering them or not.
Is talking about it enough?
Talking about it removes the stigmas so it will become a day-to-day topic. It becomes normal. There is a fear if you say you are depressed that people will look at you differently and be treated differently.
The GAA has made contact with counselling support services for sports people in Britain, like Sporting Chance. Are you surprised by that?
It’s time to open up a bit more and for everyone to look out for each other, the GAA it is a community organisation and that sort of prides itself on being that and this is part of that, that we look after all our members.
In conversation with Robert Mulhern
Mark Gottsche joins Dr Liam Delaney from Stirling University and Mary Heffernan from the Irish Forum for Counselling and Psychotherapy at From Smiles to Suicide: The mental health of Irish people in London on November 26 at Southwark Town Hall from 6pm to 8.30pm. For more information call 020 7354 5248 or email firstname.lastname@example.org