In the aftermath of the shocking suicide of Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) star player Niall Donohue, Gaelic Players Association’s (GPA) CEO Dessie Farrell has emphasized that the organization’s work to provide counseling and mental health initiatives are two key parts of its ongoing mission.

Farrell is scheduled to join other star players from the Gaelic games at the New York Athletic Club on November 14 for the second annual GPA Ireland-US Gaelic Heritage Awards Gala Event, where Donohue’s passing and the organization's ongoing efforts to combat suicide will be a focus on the night.

GPA Chairman Donal Og Cusack is also scheduled to attend the gala, as will past players like Kevin O’Neill of Mayo, Dublin football icons Brian Mullins and Tony Hanahoe and All-Ireland winning manager Pat Gilroy.

With Donohue’s passing last week the GPA and the wider GAA have been encouraged to redouble their efforts to tackle the issue of mental health and suicide in Ireland, Farrell says.

“We have had a mental health program in place for the last two years,” Farrell told IrishCentral, referring to the nationwide Counseling Service and Confidential Helpline for players that has already helped up to 120 county players who have contacted the service.

“We also have a panel of clinical psychologists around the country that players can get in touch with when they’re encountering challenges in their own lives. We’re adding more personnel to that to make it even more accessible on a regional basis.

The GPA has also set up a 24-hour-emergency confidential helpline that can take calls from players. If they need to be directed in an emergency situation they can make that happen,” Farrell says.

Services for players can range from a simple conversation about their emotional health to providing support for full-time residential treatment. The service has also beem extended to GAA clubs in the wake of the recent tragic bereavement. The GPA has also established partnerships with specialist groups to raise awareness in wider society about these issues.

“Our players can be role models in the wider society and they can often convey important messages and a social impact in a positive fashion,” Farrell explains. “That’s why we’ve partnered with Headstrong, an Irish youth mental health organization, and Pieta House which is a suicide prevention organization.”

But what about the larger social context in which these challenges happen? Farrell says the GPA is keenly aware of the challenge they have set themselves.

“I think there’s a huge challenge in society in general with young male mental health and suicide. It’s today or yesterday that we’ve learned that and in many ways the scary thing is that perhaps we don’t even realize the extent of the problem,” says Farrell.

“Because of the nature of men, their characteristics and traits, they can choose to bottle things up because they don’t want to show signs of weakness or vulnerability. One of the great challenges is to break down those walls and begin a discussion that reminds them it’s OK to be vulnerable. No one’s invulnerable, we all have weaknesses and difficulties and challenges in our lives.

“But this is a cultural change that needs to take place. To be honest I think it needs to happen at an earlier age than it does in this country. Can we get younger people to understand that it’s OK to drop the mask and discuss psychological issues?”

Having discussions about your emotional and mental health needn’t only be confined to crisis sessions, Farrell says. “This can be good for everyone in a general sense. There’s a preventative step that we really need to take. An emphasis on good mental and emotional health needs to be more pervasive. As a society we haven’t quite got there.”

Issues that the GPA’s counselors have confronted have included problems in a player’s family life, or sexual identity issues or bullying, alongside emotional and mental health issues. “It doesn’t have to be just about depression. We need to be open as a society to engage with these issues.”

Sean Potts, Head of Communications for the GPA told IrishCentral: “We want to break down what is essentially a huge taboo in Ireland around mental health, particularly for young men. In the wake of Niall’s death there was a feeling of utter devastation in the GPA and the playing ranks. But the resolve of the people who initiated our programs in 2010 to redouble our efforts to reach people in Ireland about how serious this issue is.”

Within the dressing room environment players have learned to become good at talking, Potts says. “One of Dublin’s leading players Paul Flynn (an All-Star medalist) lost a friend to suicide. He is now very articulate on the subject and very forthcoming about identifying problems early, warning signs and emotional distress. What we’re trying to do is not wait for the tragedy to occur. We’re trying to break down the taboo and encourage the debate at a much younger age. Our players can be role models to reach out to young people.”

Despite the tragedies that continue to occur there has been progress Potts says, but he adds that when it comes to suicide and its surrounding issues Irish society is still only at first base. “There’s a huge job ahead internally and externally for us as an influential base in Irish society.”

Read more on mental health awareness here.