Tackle your men­tal health

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

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Cover Story - 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.

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, fouryear 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.’”

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-the­field 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 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 psyIt cho­log­i­cal 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 giv­par­tic­u­larly ing 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 well­be­ing 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.

Pic­ture:INPHO/Billy Stick­land

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

SEEK SUP­PORT: For­mer Ire­land and Mun­ster rugby star Alan Quin­lan who is an am­bas­sador for the ‘Lean On Me’ cam­paign.

Pic­ture:INPHO/Elena Barbini

IN­SPIR­ING PLAYER: Le­in­ster’s Jack McGrath in Guin­ness PRO14 ac­tion against Benet­ton Tre­viso in Sta­dio Monigo, Tre­viso, Italy last Oc­to­ber.

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