Mental health drive in Oz by Cork woman

Newmarket-born Mairead O’Connor lives in Sydney and is part of Central Coast GAA. She tells EMMA CONNOLLY about funding the club was recently awarded for a mental health initiative
Mental health drive in Oz by Cork woman

Mairead O’Connor is grants advisor for the Central Coast GAA Club in Sydney

A CORK woman has played a key role in helping her adopted GAA Club in Sydney secure funds to take the mental health conversation out of the clinic and into the clubhouse, and put the person before the player.

Mairead O’Connor is grants advisor for the Central Coast GAA Club in Sydney, which has just been awarded $30,000 from an Australian scheme for sporting clubs to inspire members to make their mental health and wellbeing a top priority.

“This financial support is something we could not have dreamed of being awarded,” said Mairead, 30, from Newmarket.

Living in Sydney is incredible, she says, but being so far from home can bring challenges including loneliness.

Among other things, this funding will help train members in mental health first aid, so they’ll know the right thing to say at the right time.

And, as just under 10% of members identify as LGBTQ+, it will help address a knowledge and training gap within the club.

Explaining how the grant came about, Mairead said: “In Central Coast GAA, we began to recognise that we are more than just a club but a community for Irish people living in Sydney. With our members so far from home, we want to provide as much support as possible.

Members of the Central Coast GAA club proudly showing off their colours.
Members of the Central Coast GAA club proudly showing off their colours.

“During Covid, it provided a perspective on how loneliness and isolation can affect people across the world. We applied for the funding to take a proactive approach to help prevent any potential mental health issues down the line to our members.

“For my role, I was asked by the club secretary would I come on as a Grants Advisor/Project Partner with a specific focus on mental health, LGBTQ+ and well-being. I have worked on similar initiatives in the past.

“We structured the project and based the plan on evidence-based techniques which have worked in previous mental health and well-being initiatives.”

Previous grant winners in Australia include heavy hitters such as AFL and National Rugby League.

“The odds were against us, but there was a lot of energy and motivation from the Central Coast GAA Committee to try win this funding. We believe this is the first of its kind for a GAA club, to receive a stand-alone grant for mental health and LGBTQ+ services – specifically, where the club has won all its funding for mental health and will lead all six initiatives in-house. This financial support is something we could not have dreamed of being awarded.”

Mairead studied Business information Systems in WIT (Degree), UCC (Masters), NUIG (PhD) and moved to Australia earlier this year. She lives with her partner, Mairead Barden from Co.Wexford.

“After I finished my studies in Ireland, I was looking for an academic job in a renowned university,” she said. “I focused on universities abroad. Australia has some of the top universities in the world. My sister also emigrated to Australia 10 years ago so there was a natural steer towards here.

“I’m now lecturing in the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).”

Mairead has played GAA all her life, so joining a team in Sydney was a natural move.

“I started with Newmarket underage teams but at the time we didn’t have an adult team, so I played for Rockchapel Ladies Gaelic Football and Mallow Camogie. I played camogie at university and made a lot of friends from Kilkenny. A few weeks before I moved to Sydney, Ciara Holden from Kilkenny had reached out and asked would I play GAA with Central Coast,” she said. “There is a strong Cork contingent from all over Cork county. For example, we have Julie Mulcahy from Courcey Rovers, the former Cork camogie player, Graham Long from Na Piarsaigh hurling, and Emer Haugh from Mallow.”

Mairead says living in Sydney “is amazing and has changed all our lives”.

“Irish people come to Sydney and build better self-esteem, gain new life skills, and see new perspective on life. The job prospects here are greater than in Ireland. I live in Randwick in Sydney and it’s full of Irish. A lot of my friends live in Randwick, so although we are in a big city it is just like a small Irish community at times. For example, when I’m going for my morning coffee I might bump into several of my friends, the majority of which I made playing GAA. There is such a healthy lifestyle here too. We could list all the benefits of living here all day, from Coogee beach daily dips, to the weather, to the high-paying jobs.

“However, there are draw-backs. There is loneliness. Parents are getting older. We miss our nieces and nephews growing up. We miss our best friends’ weddings. We worry about visas. We deal with the everyday life challenges but we deal with them away from family. Our friends become our family over here. That’s why the GAA community is very important.”

Mairead O’Connor and members of the Central Coast GAA Club. She is the grants advisor for the club based in Sydney.
Mairead O’Connor and members of the Central Coast GAA Club. She is the grants advisor for the club based in Sydney.

And that’s why, at Central Coast, they realised that they needed to train members in mental health first aid so they know the right things at the right time.

“For example, we wanted to try funding for early-intervention courses that increase mental health literacy and teach the practical skills needed to support someone experiencing a mental health problem.”

Among other things, the grand aid will be used to develop a GAA podcast and organise seminars.

“Also, as just under 10% of our members identify as LGBTQ+ we realised that there was a knowledge and training gap within the club.

“Central Coast have been extremely welcoming and accepting of LGBTQ+ members. However, the majority of our members have never had LGBTQ+ training. This type of training can expand our understanding of the LGBTQ+ community and understand the lived experience of some of our members. There are topics such as ‘acceptance versus inclusion’ which everyone can benefit from, including myself. At the end of the day, we want to be a sporting organisation which has pride in our inclusion of athletes, volunteers and spectators with diverse genders and sexualities. This can only happen if we up-skill,” said Mairead.

“Each initiative was developed to create ongoing awareness about mental health support services and grow capacity to build resilience in our Irish community.”

To anyone thinking of moving to Australia, Mairead urged them to reach out.

“Central Coast GAA is not an exclusive club and new members are always welcome. We encourage anyone to join, whether or not you have played GAA before, or if you simply would like to be a social member.”

Their ultimate objective is that other clubs in Ireland, Australia, anywhere, can replicate their initiatives and make mental health a top priority.

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