GAA becomes key player in fostering mental well-being
The Association has recognised that it has a responsibility to help in difficult times, writes John O'Brien
IGGY CLARKE remembers how it used to be. It was the early 1970s and his life was beginning to assume a certain shape. He had entered the seminary in Maynooth and taken his first steps on the way to joining the priesthood. He had led the Galway under-21 hurlers to the All-Ireland summit in 1972, the county's first title in any grade in 50 years. The barren Munster years of the 1960s were a fading memory now. Galway hurling began to believe in itself once more.
And then tragedy struck. They were jolted by the news that Liam Shields from Ballindereen, wing-back on the '72 team, had died following a tragic accident. It was hardest for Liam's family, of course, and those who loved him most, but his team-mates were suffering too. As captain, Clarke felt a profound sense of loss that he struggled to articulate and for which his keen spiritual faith seemed only of limited value.
"God, there was such a void," he says quietly now. "Such an intense feeling of absence, of loss. But there was nobody really to talk to about it. I don't remember anything within the club or the county. It happened and then it was left. There was no discussion beyond that."
It isn't a memory Clarke offers by way of censure. That was simply the culture of the time. The way things were. Shields was, like him, a defender and the thought of all the games they'd played together, the battles they'd fought for each other and the deep sense of comradeship that had evolved with it. And then, suddenly, there was nothing. A cruel, dark void you were left to contend with as best you could.
"That's just how it was. Whether you played hurling or any sport, you entered into this sort of macho male environment and the last thing you did was let your softer side be seen. Whatever emotions you had, or if there were issues that were bothering you, it wasn't really the place to show it. It felt like a sign of weakness if you did."
In the decades since his playing days ended, Clarke has witnessed two profound journeys. A personal one in which he left the cloth to pursue a career as a counsellor and psychologist. And a parallel civic journey from the emotionally constricted society of his youth to a more tender approach where GAA stars can talk freely about their sexuality and open up about personal issues in a way that would have seemed impossible even a decade ago.
In his capacity as a counsellor, Clarke was there two weeks ago when the Galway players were grappling with the untimely death of star forward Niall Donohue and he will see them again this week. Naturally, the work he does with individual players remains confidential, although, he says, the broad outline rarely changes dramatically from case to case.
"When I'm invited, I go as a counsellor, as a former player with a spiritual background, sometimes just as a friend. I suppose I have experience in this instance. I can identify with the team situation. I know what it's like to lose a colleague, a mate. The spiritual side can help bring some meaning. It can help deal with the guilt and anger we might be feeling as survivors. It's there. In front of us. It's important we deal with it."
And that is happening now with increasing regularity. When she tuned into RTE's Prime Time on Tuesday night to hear Cloyne hurler Conor Cusack talk about his battle against depression, Finola Colgan was struck by how Cusack's interview was preceded by a heated debate about the legalisation of marijuana. Cusack's story stood tall on its own terms, but the juxtaposition with Luke 'Ming' Flanagan's determined defence of drugs made it all the more powerful.
Colgan, development officer for Mental Health Ireland in the midlands, tells of how Tullamore GAA club held a fundraising evening two years ago and offered to donate a percentage of the take to a voluntary agency working in the area of mental health. The result is an impressively designed information board, packed with snippets of advice and helpful contact numbers, that has been posted to clubs and colleges across their target areas. Already, the project has been unveiled in Offaly, Westmeath and Longford and they are getting ready to roll it out in Laois and the feedback has been encouraging. "A little while ago a friend sent me a photo of something she'd seen in Ferbane GAA club and said I might be interested in this. When I saw it, I said that looks familiar. It's one of ours. Things like that give you a lift."
It struck Colgan too that while the issue of mental health extended far wider than the GAA, it made sense to have the GAA on board when it came to reaching out. She noticed how in one town the local rugby club had picked up on their idea and found that hugely pleasing. But it didn't alter the core truth. As a bridge to communities, the GAA remained the ideal starting point.
Not that those in Croke Park would see that as a badge of honour or a reason to feel superior. The truth was that there was a community out there to be served rather than the other way round. "Our clubs' primary goal will always be about the promotion of Gaelic games," says Colin Regan, the GAA's community and health manager, "but we are a community as well as a sports organisation and we take our responsibility in that area very seriously."
In the three years since he joined the GAA to lead its Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) programme, Regan has seen his remit evolve in ways he could never have imagined. Back then alcohol and drugs seemed such over-arching problems it took time to realise that the most pressing issues went deeper. Once the penny dropped, though, the response was immediate.
"The Association rightly turned to address the most significant issues," Regan says. "In the current economic climate, people's mental health is suffering. It's as simple as that. People are under strain. They're under pressure in lots of different areas in their lives and if we can respond in any little way, then there's an onus on us to do so."
In a harsh climate, he sees little offshoots of hope. Figures showing what amounts to an explosion in people of all ages engaging in physical activity. Glory be! A grown-up conversation around our relationship with alcohol, an acknowledgment of the need to implement minimum unit prices. Hallelujah! He's heard stories of clubs insisting that underage teams aren't brought to pubs after games, little things that challenge the normalisation of our attitude towards alcohol.
He sees whole new conversations breaking out about the once near-taboo subject of men's mental health. The 'can't talk, won't talk' stigma of previous generations gradually fading away. He thinks too of the benefits they will reap from Cusack's brave decision to go public with his story and knows they will be substantial because a similar thing happened when Cavan goalkeeper Alan O'Mara related in this paper his own experience with depression last summer.
"The response to Alan's piece was remarkable. After he wrote it, we noticed a sizeable increase in the number of phone calls into Croke Park the following week. Mainly from concerned relatives of young men. Mothers, girlfriends, sisters. One or two from people themselves recognising symptoms Alan had outlined so eloquently in his piece."
Because it has upwards of 750,000 members, it isn't practical for the GAA to maintain a dedicated counselling service like the GPA. Initially, Regan says, those making inquiries are directed back to their local GP and, failing that, the next most appropriate service provider. "We're lucky too," he says. "A number of our ASAP officers are counsellors in their day jobs so I can pick up the phone and draw on them if I have to."
The GAA's commitment to increase resources has been encouraging. Effectively a one-man band when he started, Regan has now been joined by two more staff members, Emmet Haughian and Stacey Cannon. At this year's Congress a motion was passed to establish a health and well-being committee, which will come into being early next year, effectively a green light for Regan to make the issue his top priority.
In March, he launched the healthy club project, a flagship enterprise involving 18 clubs on a two-year pilot basis. At the research stage they looked around for global models and found only two – one in Australia, another in Finland – that came close to what they were seeking to implement. "It's kind of ground-breaking stuff really," Regan enthuses. On top of the healthy club initiative, another project with a major mental health agency will be announced in 2014.
He's proud of how far they've come, humbled by the selflessness of those who have made it possible. He plucks just one example. Susan Kenny is the training and development officer for the National Office for Suicide Prevention and, in her spare time, the ASAP officer for Leinster and Regan wonders where she finds the time. "The work these people do," he says, "because, believe me, this isn't a sexy topic. They're often seen as killjoys. It's inspiring, the time they put into it, often on the periphery of what many see as the association's core business."
Gradually, though, that distinction is being eroded. The old perception of the GAA as an unwieldy, democracy-addled beast, slow to respond to critical developments, reactive rather than proactive, isn't anywhere on view here. Regan sees what the GAA does as being in tandem with other organisations working in the area, all coming from slightly different strands, but meeting at the same intersection. He stresses key words over and over again: partnership, collaboration, co-operation.
Time and again, too, he returns to another vital word: responsibility. "Although we've made good progress, we've been quite patient and very careful in choosing who we work with. Because it's important to be sure we can deliver a consistent message in a space that can sometimes be confusing. There's a responsibility on all of us to do it well and do it right."