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Rugby star opens up about how he tackled bouts of depression

IRISH rugby ace Alan Quinlan is to speak publicly for the first time at a series of regional events on mental health next week about his experience of depression, hitting "the bottom of the barrel" and having suicidal thoughts.

The ex-international star has spoken out about how he sank into the depths of depression after a suspension for eye gouging Leinster captain Leo Cullen in 2009, which resulted in the back-row star missing the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.

"Experiencing depression was a shock and at first I was unwilling to talk about it. It never occurred to me to open up or tell people about my problems," said the rugby star, who recently announced his retirement from the professional game.

"Look, I don't want people to think I'm some kind of victim or basket case. I'm not. I'm not someone who's either up or down the whole time, I'm just someone who has been up and down and sometimes still gets a little blue and finds there's nothing to be ashamed in that. I've accepted I can't change what happened with the Lions. I can't rewind the button," he told The Examiner newspaper, before going on a series of speaking engagements as part of Mental Health week.

Having split from his top model wife Ruth Griffin last year, after only two years of marriage, their two-year-old son AJ is the most important priority in his life.

"Thankfully, with the support of my GP, friends and family I have come through the experience and am happy to share what I have gone through in the hope that it will help others," he said.

Having labelled himself a "worrier", it was only after opening up to members of the Munster backroom team and then meeting psychotherapist Dr Michael Horgan in 2009, that Quinlan admitted to feeling "much better after it".

"It was like I was binning all these negative thoughts and experiences. I had been depressed during that whole episode, but I also saw it as an opportunity to analyse my whole life, to see if I could come up with a different way to make myself a bit happier and find out why I'd been so hard on myself," he told the newspaper.

The doctor made the diagnosis that Quinlan's lack of self-belief was damaging him on the field. "I'd constantly have negative thoughts when a good thing would happen. I'd just have a feeling, 'I'll do something to mess it up'."

Now he has started to believe in his ability and repeats to himself on a constant basis prior to a match: "I can do this." "I'm a good player." "I'm a good person."

Not asking others for help and being unwilling to talk about how he felt was what brought the 36-year-old to this crossroads initially.

"There's a bit of a stigma attached to men going to the doctor and asking for a bit of help or even opening up to friends and family members. It's not the done thing in Ireland. But if you have a toothache, you go to the dentist. Yet if you're feeling low down, people here tend not to talk about it. I was, 'well, I can solve all my own problems and look after myself.' That's not the way to do it. You have to reach out and ask for some help," he admitted.

A few years ago, the Munster star would have struggled to face his biggest fear of all -- his retirement -- but with his mental health in a positive place and being in full control of his feelings, he will be able to deal with it.

"The fear of not being able to play anymore, and being out in the real world, and I suppose of getting older as well. The realisation that I'll miss the game so much, that it's over and I can't just go out on the pitch and express myself like I used to. Like, how do I stimulate myself now? You know what I mean?

"So one thing I'm hoping when I finish up is that it will relax me more and make me a less stressful person."

Quinlan will be speaking at the Radisson Hotel in Galway on Tuesday to promote mental health awareness as part of the 'Lean On Me' initiative, as well as the following Tuesday, in Cork.

Sunday Independent