WE regularly hear about the positive impact sport has on the mental health of our youth and young adults.
It’s a comment frequently echoed, but how much thought do we actually put into the power of that positivity?
In my playing days, mental health, in general, was never mentioned. You had mental health issues if you were locked into an institution; that was the extent of it and often joked about.
Other than that, of course, your friend, team-mate, or work colleague didn’t have mental health issues. How could they?
But even back then, while not having mental health issues, at times I may have had a troubled mind over something going on in my personal life and I’d go out training or play a match, and I’d feel 100 times better.
What problems having no sport currently is playing on people’s minds, I’d imagine, is huge. It most definitely is creating a significant increase in players’ anxiety.
The Camogie Association, GAA and LGFA, in partnership with Jigsaw, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, have made available across their memberships a new online mental health course called One Good Coach.
The course is based on the successful workshop Jigsaw delivers face-to-face across its 12 services. It offers participants a greater understanding of mental health, the importance of their role as a potential One Good Adult in the lives of young members, and a greater awareness of how to promote and support young people’s mental health.
While designed with coaches in mind, the 40-minute content should prove equally informative to Healthy Club or children’s officers, any other club or county volunteers that work with young people, or even interested parents or young people themselves.
Cork player Ashling Thompson has done tremendous work in opening up and giving talks on mental health issues after struggling with it herself for so many years.
Following a very bad car accident in 2009 and the loss of her boyfriend through suicide in 2012, Ashling went through a tough time as she explained in many interviews when she opened up about mental illness as far back as 2015.
"I remember struggling away after my accident, struggling to get back to my sport and then all of a sudden my partner took his own life just as I was making progress. That was probably the lowest moment for me. I began to shut myself off from everyone. I felt like it was the best thing for me to do because I didn’t want anyone else suffering. I didn’t want to take anyone down with me.
"I never thought I was ever going to go through depression or anxiety or any of that stuff and when it happened, I was pure emotionless. I’d cry or get angry or be happy, but I could never really feel it. I felt almost invisible.
"I remember one time I started crying at training. I don’t know why, but I remember actually feeling the emotion so intensely; it was the first time in years I’d felt emotion like that.
“That’s when I knew I was coming back to myself; the moment I was coming back to the Ashling I always knew. The first step to getting better and getting help is reaching out and talking about your feelings.
“Asking somebody: ‘Are you OK?’ is the simplest question, but it could really change their life."
She explained at the time how she dealt with the pain.
“I just continue to play sport, continue to focus my mind on something else. Continue to do things for different charities, like Cycle Against Suicide for Pieta House. Or Headstrong,” she says, referring to the non-profit organisation supporting young people’s mental health in Ireland.
When asked how did she get up again, Ashling’s reply was: “I just stuck with my sport."
It is widely known the considerable impact of sport on the mental health of the general population, young people included. This finding was recently endorsed in the My World Survey 2 (MWS), the largest and most comprehensive study of youth mental health in the country. In this study, published in 2019, young people identified sport as a top coping mechanism.
But there’s more to it than the sport — there are multi-layers of influence within the club context that can also promote young people’s mental health, which can often be underplayed.
Taragh McGovern, youth mental health promotion manager with Jigsaw, further explains.
“Sports clubs are ideal settings for youth mental health promotion given the well-established health benefits, the large participation base, and extended access to children and adolescents during sports participation,” she said.
“Additionally, coaches are in an ideal position to promote and support young people’s mental health due to the contact time and nature of the coach-athlete relationship.
“The value of this relationship has been documented in the literature. We know that the presence of a trusted adult in a young person’s life is linked to better mental health. For many young people, this adult is their coach.
"The aim of this course is to increase the mental health literacy of coaches and club members in the Gaelic games community so that they feel more confident to promote and support young people’s mental health within the breadth of their coaching role. Jigsaw are thrilled to partner with the GAA to bring One Good Coach to the GAA, camogie, and LGFA community."