A Conversation About Mental Health

You instilled your passion for football in me

A passion all your children embraced with great fervency

I will come to your games and offer advice

But I warn you now, what I say may not be nice

In life as in football you must be willing to learn

Constructive criticism you must come to yearn

The above, is a short verse from a poem I wrote at 4 o’clock in the
morning at my mother’s kitchen table in Cabra just hours after my Father
died in the Mater Hospital. I sat at that table in a numbed state
absorbing the loss of the greatest person I knew, while reflecting on
how he had guided me through many life problems in such a calming
manner. These problems became challenges to confront and overcome while
accepting responsibility for my actions and learning from them.

I reference this verse because I think it is relevant to the society we
live in today and how we have moved from the terrace abuse of
tribalistic supporters to the faceless keyboard warriors of social media
who quite literally can destroy a life using 280 characters or less.

Within a sporting context the treatment Irish Internationals James
McClean and Shane Duffy have been subjected to is a true reflection of
the times we live in. The abuse both men have endured, particularly on
social media, has highlighted the deep reaching effect these online
warriors have. This impact is not just on their principle target but
also the ones who are hurting in the shadows, the ones who are there to
pick these lads up (whether they admit or not) when it gets too much,
the ones that feel every inch of the pain, the loved ones who want to,
but cannot say anything for fear of showing weakness.

When Shane Duffy’s mother Siobhan and James McLean’s wife Erin hit out
at the online trolls, I was full of admiration for both women. I didn’t
see weakness, I seen two strong articulate women saying enough is
enough. It highlighted the far-reaching effects online abuse causes not
just for their targeted victim but also their loved ones.

Constructive criticism is to be encouraged and is part of life, but
sinister personal attacks are as disgusting as the people making them.
To date, not enough has been done to stop it. The suicides of vulnerable
people young and old who do not have the mental resolve to absorb such
hatred or the capacity to ignore it, is all too common. It is no wonder
Mental Health is being spoken about more often but more needs to be done
to those who are causing it, because at this moment in time it does not
feel like there are any repercussions for trolls. This sends the
message its ok, when it clearly is not.

In 2012 I became really aware of what mental health means and how it
effects your everyday life. I was at the peak of my suffering with a
chronic back condition that had me in a semi-vegetive state for almost a
year. The feeling of uselessness as I lay on the floor, getting heavier
by the day, as my remarkable wife Lesley was left to run a home and
raise two children while she still went to work every day, made me
realise I needed help for more than my back problem.

I work for a fantastic company in Cork called Depuy Synthes, a medical
device company. After a visit to the company Doctor and a conversation
around my health and wellbeing he arranged an appointment to visit a
Psychiatrist. After some in-depth truthful conversations with my Doctor,
he diagnosed me as suffering with Deep Depression, exasperated by the
chronic pain from my back condition. Because of this conversation I now
knew the full extent of my physical and mental problems. These problems
became challenges to confront and overcome and with the help of Lesley,
family, and friends, my recovery began, not because I had the “courage”
to talk about it, but because like my back condition which needed
healing so did my brain and I got the attention that condition needed.

There are many different conditions to Mental Heath and there are many
different recovery tools that can be used to make that journey easier.
We are all different people with different emotions and resolve, so the
recovery methods we use are different and very individualistic to our
personality traits. On this basis alone, and from my own experience, it
is important to first acknowledge our changing state of mind by telling
someone. Then the recovery process can begin based on our individual
needs.

I do not profess to be any kind of expert on the workings of the human
brain and its fragilities, nor is this column written to be published in
any medical journals. I am approaching this subject as an ordinary man
with an ordinary point of view, trying to provoke a normal discussion on
a health issue that I and so many other people are dealing with. It is
difficult and to a large extent embarrassing to talk. There is a stigma
attached to mental health issues.

To this day, the simple mention of Mental Health can send an uneasy
shudder down the spine of the person or audience listening. It is a
reference that instantly provokes negative connotations to the listener
who immediately visualises straight jackets and padded rooms all located
in a large dark establishment with draconian names such as asylum or
institution.

Such is the negativity around the term Mental Health, it is easy to
forget that conversations around this topic can be positive and
educational. How we treat our bodies and improve our ability to deal
with stressful situations is key. These situations need not have a
lasting negative impact on our state of mind. Instead, we can progress
through the barrage of challenges that that life throws at us.

Dublin GAA star Shane Carthy kindly facilitated a zoom conference for
our Shelbourne FC LOI under 15 squad and their parents last week. A
quick glance at this handsome sports star and you think this kid has it
all. He is an intelligent young man with a great support network of
family and friends and has already been hugely successful in his chosen
sporting field, winning a senior All Ireland at just 18 years of age!
Shane has released a compelling book based on his battle with Depression
and the suicidal thoughts that enveloped him as he navigated his way
through school and playing for the Dublin minor and senior teams.

At Shelbourne Academy we have been fortunate to have had several
exceptional zoom webinars over the course of lockdown, but this was by
far my personal favourite one for several reasons. One of those reasons
was the way Shane spoke about his Wellbeing journey in a manner that
both 14-year-old children and grown adults could understand and relate
to. He smiled and at times laughed as he broached the stigmatised
subject of Mental Health and somehow made the conversation seem normal.
In my opinion this is exactly how it should be if we want people to feel
ok about sharing their mental health conditions.

As Shane spoke, I made someone very dear to me (who is suffering with
wellbeing issues, including anxiety attacks, as a result trolling on and
offline) listen to him so they could understand that whilst what they
are going through now is not very nice, they are not alone and there is
light at the end of the tunnel provided you seek the help your body is
asking you to get. Due to the content of this webinar, I told Shane I
would have some questions at the end of his talk ready as it was
generally felt our attendees may not want to participate too much in in
the planned Q&A at the end. That assumption went out the window because
within seconds of me asking for questions the little yellow Zoomer hands
were flashing all over my screen. It was fantastic to see and even
better to listen to our Players, Parents. Guardians and Coaches interact
and discuss such an important subject in such a normal way. This was
down to how Shane set the tone.

Normalising the conversation around mental health will be easier said
than done, but with people like Shane Carthy promoting this message it
will happen sooner rather than later. We can all help by understanding
Mental Health issues are common amongst us and we don’t need a Doctorate
to help make people feel better. A compassionate empathetic ear goes a
long way to easing someone’s suffering. We cannot control who or what
people say about us, but we can control how that affects us and how we
deal with it. Staying quiet is not dealing with it. Talking about it is
the foundation I and many others built recovery on.

It is OK to not be OK. It is OK to tell someone you’re not OK. It is
sign of strength to do so. I will finish this conversation with another
verse from my father’s poem.

As the years went by admiration ensues

For this wonderful man’s teachings of life’s values

Treat people with honesty and respect

Don’t tell me lies and life will be perfect

Always try do the right thing was his favourite quote

A line my family and I continuously try to take note

Further reading

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