'Imagine what his words will do to help some youngster who is struggling'
Tony Griffin wants top players to mentor the next generation, writes Damian Lawlor
FORMER All Star hurler Tony Griffin has called on the GAA to develop an innovative new programme to pre-empt the rapidly rising issue of depression among its members.
Griffin, who works with the Dublin hurlers in a counselling and life-coaching role, feels there is an extreme urgency surrounding the organisation's future treatment of an illness that is sadly becoming more common in sporting circles.
"The GAA is one of the few organisations in Ireland that hasn't failed its young people," he says. "That's the way I see it. Ask any young person – and we have held workshops for 2,500 people aged between 12-18 in schools across the country – who their role models are and they won't mention one politician. Many of them will say a GAA player. We have to use that.
"Many of these kids are looking for help; they are stuck in social media circles where there are no leaders or regulation, only others who are more lost than themselves."
He wants the GAA to use its vast influence on Irish life, its club and county structures and employ its network of contacts to develop a programme to help young people through their formative years.
He recommends targeting players at early development level and helping them achieve stability, working with them on their identities away from sport, and he feels that senior players in both clubs and counties should link up with those in grades below them.
Griffin, CEO of the Soar foundation, a group set up to help the next generation of young Irish people, also suggests holding a GAA forum to identify depression symptoms in players at an early stage. Specifically, he would like to see a senior hurler or footballer, club or inter-county, pair off with three to four young players from under 14 upwards and maintain a link.
He reckons that high-profile players like Paul Galvin, who are secure with their own identity, should be asked to help spread a positive message of self-expression to youngsters struggling to find their own path in life.
"Paul Galvin is a man that follows his own road, no matter how different it is to how the traditional GAA man would live his life," Griffin says. "I admire Paul so much because he doesn't care what others think. Not everyone has strength to be like that, but if people like Paul were circulating the country, speaking to kids, it would be a huge boost.
"When I was hurling, I struggled with that identity. I loved writing and loved music too, but yet I had to be at training four nights a week and had to learn to 'hate them fuckers from over the river in Tipp' because they 'had walked on us for years'. When Anthony Daly asked me to help out with Dublin, I was amazed to hear none of that talk. Instead, those Dublin players just want to be the best they could be, they had the same issues as everyone else; some would call at night to chat about stuff, others were in fear of being taken off or being cleaned in a game.
"If you doubt yourself and you feel under pressure, it's bad enough. Maybe you have personal finance worries too, or you're worried about parents. It all adds up. You devote 90 per cent of your life to becoming an elite GAA player and other areas in your life suffer.
"But it's easier to hide depression when you're a GAA player because you never stand still. You can't be a hero all of the time. So, I think kids must be targeted from 16 on. That way, if they are dropped or suffer setbacks along the way, they have already been worked with and could be equipped to deal with things."
Griffin's Soar movement has been swarmed with inter-county players looking to help. Ex-Wexford hurler Diarmuid Lyng has just joined the board and they have opened a new office at Temple Bar. Griffin welcomes the increasing number of players now speaking publicly about their battles with depression, but feels much more is needed to ease the epidemic of suicides in Ireland.
"And it's needed quickly," he states. "Our young people are totally lost. I see it every day in our workshops. But not everyone can see it because when they are playing sport or GAA, especially to a high level, they can hide it because so much of their time is devoted to games and training."
In the past fortnight, the Ballyea man noted the outpouring of grief following young Galway hurler Niall Donohue's sad and untimely passing. Twitter came alive with tributes, while sportsmen all over Ireland encouraged people struggling with depression not to conceal their issues and to speak out.
Conor Cusack then wrote a ground-breaking blog on his battle with depression and appeared on RTE's Prime Time. "It was unreal watching Conor speak; imagine what his words will do to help some other youngster who is struggling with depression," Griffin added.
"But we need a movement here to take the next step now; we're only looking at the symptoms and not the cause. I think it's time for a GAA forum, hold it in Hayes Hotel again or somewhere like that; go back to our roots. The GAA has changed beyond all recognition and we have to realise that our players, while they are heroes, are changing too. But they are just as vulnerable as anyone else."