The issue of depression in sport was catapulted to front page news worldwide following the death of Wales soccer manager Gary Speed who committed suicide last week.
And it’s an issue that, sadly, is all too prevalent in Ireland where the number of people who take their own lives remains shockingly high.
As part of its Player Development Program, the Gaelic Players Association initiated a nationwide counseling service for county players last year.
While the objective of the service is to encourage young men to talk about issues affecting their lives, the GPA is acutely aware that its membership is primarily made up of a demographic considered most at risk from suicide.
Run by a team of clinical psychologists, it was expected that uptake for the service might be slow, that it would take time for players to become comfortable with the offer of support for their personal difficulties.
However, the opposite has been the case and there has been a steady flow of young men accessing the counsellors with a range of personal problems.
In fact such is the demand and length of time it takes for players to go through the full course of counseling sessions that the program will have to be expanded.
The hope is that by encouraging players to discuss their mental health through the counseling service and other support services such as the GPA’s life skills program, problems will be tackled and dealt with before they deepen.
Having to balance careers on and off the field is a unique challenge for amateur GAA players and can exacerbate emotional problems if left unchecked. The issue of athletic identity and managing the transition into retirement can also pose unique difficulties.
Unfortunately Gaelic games have not been spared the tragedy of suicide in recent times with a number of players taking their own lives.
In response to the growing need for mental health awareness in Ireland, the GPA has also committed to working with a number of mental health organizations next year as part of its support for social initiatives and charity.
Unlike the acceptance of widespread public campaigns such as road safety and health promotion, the issue of mental health is often sidelined and the GPA can play a specific role in helping to de-stigmatize it.
In January a team of ambassadors for mental health campaign will be announced. The ambassadors, four high profile county players, will help promote the work of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health.
And the GPA will also support the well known mental health organization Aware which is running a fundraising and awareness drive next summer, a campaign which, it is hoped, will reach every county in Ireland.
What was most encouraging from the GPA’s perspective was the number of players who volunteered to act as ambassadors for mental health, perhaps reflecting changing attitudes in Ireland to the issue.
And changing attitudes is the next essential step the country needs to take if it is to protect young people from losing hope.