Thursday 8 December 2016

Niall Breslin: Colm O'Rourke is hero of mine, but raises worrying issues around GAA mental welfare

Niall Breslin

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Colm O'Rourke. Photo: Sportsfile

For years I have been an avid ­follower of the GAA and although I became a professional rugby player, football was my first love when it came to sport.

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I am a Westmeath man, but one of my heroes growing up was Colm O'Rourke. I also had the privilege of addressing the school he is principal of, St Patrick's in Navan, on the subject of mental health and wellbeing, and I have great respect for the man.

I was reading his column in last week's Sunday Independent about the Gaelic Players Association, a subject he seems quite passionate about. In general, I enjoy Colm's no-nonsense writing. However, there were some worrying points made in this piece when it came to the mental health of GAA players and students.

No one has all the answers on this issue, but people like Colm have a voice that others listen to. With such a position of influence comes a responsibility to choose his words carefully. I know from experience that words can hurt and words can heal. The choice is up to each of us.

Although Colm is correct in saying there are plenty of agencies where help can be sought, he is underselling the importance of peer support. The GPA welfare programmes and support services understand the demands, stresses and internal and external issues GAA players face on a daily basis, and also recognise the fact that every player is facing different issues. External agencies, although extremely helpful, may not have the holistic understanding of the often chaotic lives of GAA players.

In certain communities these players are held in very high esteem, and their identity sculpted around the fact that they are GAA players, which can take a heavy toll on people who may not have the capacity to cope with that situation. This is not about "getting over it", whatever that means. This is what it means to be human.

Every one of us has had times in our lives when we felt under pressure, stressed out, alone. GAA players are no different. Many of us have been fortunate to have the help of family and friends who were there for us when we needed it. GAA players deserve no less.

Colm is right when he says that previous generations faced challenges in a different environment. But harsher? Previous generations, and I include myself in that bracket, are not a very good gauge when it comes to mental health. We were not 'mentally tough', we just completely ignored and repressed our emotional and mental wellbeing as many men and women struggled in complete silence.

We stigmatised an incredibly common illness while many turned to alcohol and unsustainable self-medicating drugs in order to even have a conversation about feelings or emotion.

The GAA attitude of 'toughness' and 'hardness' over the years often drove me so far back into my shell that I wondered would I ever come out. I can tell you from my experience of talking and working with some of our GAA players currently, some things haven't changed and it's the work that groups like the GPA are doing that are helping address this.

In fact, young men and women who deal with a mental health issue at any level have more mental toughness and resilience than most. They often have to fight every day with their mind while going out on a pitch and performing at an intense level.

Our current generation of youth are dealing with a new range of issues that can be devastatingly difficult. I agree at some level, we all must face life challenges and figure out how to overcome them, but many people may not have the coping mechanisms to do this, and I feel we have a responsibly to equip all our youth with the mental fitness to survive and triumph in the modern world.

I have seen the positive impact the GPA is having on player welfare, and the transforming attitudes of those within the GAA, one of the most important and influential institutions in this country. The passion for the GPA shown by people like Alan O'Mara, Alan Kerins, Conor Cusack and Tony Griffin is testament to what they are doing and the vision they hold for the GAA and for our country. I'm sure the Association isn't perfect but at least it is pushing the boundaries, and perhaps some conflict and tension is required for progress to occur.

One thing is for sure, we need leadership and vision for the wellbeing of this country, and thankfully organisations like the GPA are stepping up to the plate.

Niall Breslin is a musician, mental health campaigner and director of www.alustforlife.com

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