The GAA family is doing its bit to stop the tragedy of suicide, writes Dermot Crowe
In August 2007, the loss by suicide of Tomás Mulligan stunned all who knew him. Others of less intimate acquaintance could relate, too, having seen him play for Dublin during the reign of Tommy Lyons. On the day he died he featured prominently in a memorable win for his club Round Towers over Kilmacud Crokes. He then went to Croke Park to see Dublin play Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. After the match he had some drinks with friends. His day contained no clues to what would follow.
"Everything seemed to be good for Tomás. He had a lovely set-up, a home, a baby, partner, a job – things on the surface seemed grand," says his father, Tom. "But things were not as happy as we thought. It came as big shock."
The GAA society Tomás Mulligan inhabited, a central part of his life until his final hours, gave his family strength when they needed it most. His father is deeply grateful. "I suppose it's an outpouring of love and concern. They are sharing with you and at the time they help pull you through it. It is a huge help. Like, the GAA, with all its faults, when you think about it, it is parish-based, it has a huge area of influence. It still manages through all the turmoil the country has been through to survive."
GAA communities throughout Ireland have been affected by suicide and many have become active in raising awareness of support services available for anyone who might need help. There are numerous organisations providing support and in some cases they work with GAA units on awareness projects. The GPA has its own counselling network for inter-county players who may be suffering mental health issues. Up to 60 players have made contact. A confidential 24-hour helpline is also offered to members.
Psychologist Niall Muldoon is one of the counsellors involved in providing the GPA service which has been running for over two years. "I would say there are a lot of players at higher levels who would lack confidence in general," he states. "What happens on the field, where they become very confident, does not necessarily translate to the clubhouse or the dressing room or their work. People expect them to be the same. And this can often be a problem and they then have to hide and pretend more. It is even harder on the younger players who don't have the maturity to cope with it."
He says that while there are many services out there, the GPA service is specifically geared towards inter-county players who might not use other services as promptly. "They see that there is a connection to the sport, and they can access it through their membership of the GPA. They are more aware of it. Every squad is visited by the reps and told about it."
Players coming out and talking openly about their problems also helps. He cites Offaly footballer Niall McNamee who revealed a serious gambling addiction. "People need to realise there is hope. That there is a possibility they can change this. Niall McNamee talked about this very well; he had got to rock bottom. Oisín McConville talked about making every right decision in front of 80,000 people and all the wrong ones in his business life. Once you see someone who has recovered that gives you hope and that is a crucial step in the recovery and in looking for help."
In the New Year Pieta House is hoping to launch a venture which taps into the GAA's grassroots network. Pieta House was established in 2006 and works towards the prevention of self-harm and suicide. It cited an 81 per cent increase in people seeking their support in 2011.
Some people have become involved in awareness campaigns as a result of personal tragedy. After Tomás Mulligan's death an annual cycle was organised to commemorate him. This year it raised over €60,000 through sponsorship which goes to groups tackling mental health issues.
"The stigma around suicide is very much there and it is more acute if someone is unwell or has mental problems; people don't want to admit their child died that way," says Tom Mulligan. "We felt more would be done by being open about it. He was a great fella and seemed to be happy – please be aware it can happen to anyone.
"You find out afterwards they were beacons of fun and entertainment, the old expression, the life of the party, and the last one you think was having difficulties. That is why I'm happy the GAA is part of raising awareness. Fellas who sometimes tend to be the life and soul of the party, occasionally there may be issues. A fellow player might pick up on something like that where a parent might not.
"I work in the Dublin docklands and there are half a dozen characters around who might be drinking near the river, most people might throw them a few bob or some might look the other way. If they said 'how are you today' or 'it's cold today' – that can be the difference between those unfortunates jumping in the river and not jumping in the river.
"I like my pipe and I would be out having a smoke and sadly I've had to walk away because there were so many cases . . . people throwing themselves into the river. I remember one beautiful young man in his mid-20s, he was so determined to end it all that he tied his hands and his feet and tipped himself in."
The memorial to his son is an annual bicycle ride which started in 2008 with a trip from Dublin to Belmullet and back. Belmullet is the home place of Tomás's mother. A year later they pedalled to his father's old home in Cootehill. The first year Tom went along in the lead car but the long journey and slow drive persuaded him to try cycling the next time.
"I am coming up to near retirement and I still feel he is there with me in spirit. I hadn't cycled for 20-30 years but I got a bike and went up training. When I was a young man I used to do an odd bit of cycling and I'd remark to Tomás when he was a child that I would love to cycle to Blessington or Bray and he'd say, 'Dad, you can't cycle to the top of the road'.
"For me, it (the cycle) is a personal thing. And if it gains more publicity about suicide and if we manage to help one person draw back then that is worthwhile. If there is one thing I'd like to say to all those people who come and join us on the cycle it is, thank you for your kindness and consideration. We want to spread awareness, to celebrate those we have lost and raise some money as well if we can."
Dublin footballers Eamonn Fennell and Paul Flynn launched this year's cycle event. But while Tom Mulligan does not want suicide stigmatised, he is equally anxious that it is not glamourised. "We are damaged for life and our hearts will never be right. You want to ask: why did you do that? Did you not know we would be broken for life? We can't glorify people. There is a fine balance there."
A recent survey of suicide fatalities in Ireland showed that Offaly rated second highest in the country, behind Kerry. Tullamore GAA club, which had been directly affected, decided to try to reach out to players and members who might be under stress. "There were a number of tragedies in the area," explains Liam O'Callaghan, a club member with a background in the HSE. "So we ran a big fundraiser last year based on Strictly Come Dancing; we made good money on it, we decided our charity would be something to do with mental health and offering protection to young people who might be vulnerable. We engaged with Mental Health Ireland.
"We sat down and said this is what we want to do: to make people aware that there is help available if needed. We didn't just want to come in a crisis, we wanted to be able to say well in advance, throughout the year, if there was something niggling at you and there is no one to talk to, there are services available. So we sat down and developed this poster board, a huge board, three feet by three, with a list of numbers and contact information for various services that offer help.
"We contacted all the clubs in Offaly, brought them to a meeting and we decided the best place to put this poster board was on the dressing-room wall. Players tog out there, they see it, they can come back in afterwards and take down a number if they wish. We knew there was a lot of this in Offaly and we wanted our club to do something about it."
Early in the year Vodafone allowed its sponsorship space on the Dublin jersey be supplanted by a mental health organisation logo for two league matches. "With one in four people experiencing mental health problems at some stage in their lives," said John Costello of Dublin County Board, "it is essential organisations like the GAA get behind efforts to encourage people to talk and look for help."
In March, some Kerry footballers helped highlight a two-day information event on suicide in Killarney, involving the HSE and organisations working in the field. It was arranged by a local business woman and former nurse Deirdre Fee who saw a need to "give exposure to the huge number of support services" available in the county.
Many similar events have been staged throughout the country. This year the national centre for youth mental health, Headstrong, teamed
up with the GPA to launch an awareness drive. Twenty-five county players act as youth mental health advocates in their communities as part of the project. One of those is Dublin footballer Ger Brennan who helped
launch the initiative with Kerry's Marc ó Sé. "People don't know how to respond or support people who may be in need," says Brennan. "Quite often the largest public outcry comes after a tragedy.
"In many ways it is all about listening to people. I know from my own experience as a school kid in Belvedere (College), there was a strong presence of the chaplain through my six years. Always someone you could go to. No matter how small you could let it off. I think my experience is we let the small things accumulate. People find it hard to see the wood from the trees. Everything kind of gets to them."
He refers to a Headstrong survey showing alcohol and drugs being fuelling factors in depression among young people. "How, when people are feeling down, they turn to these drugs to block it out but the hangover is even worse. I could relate to that particularly if you had the few pints after you lost a match. You want to blow off some steam. That can in circumstances make it a lot worse."