Well-known Cork hurler Conor Cusack will be in New York next week to talk as part of a panel about various mental health issues including depression, addiction, bereavement, to benefit the Irish community.
Cusack maintains the US, has much to learn about dealing with those suffering from depression and other mental health issues.
“I had the impression that America was a very open country in terms of tackling issues such as mental health and depression, but I have been shocked to learn of the existent taboos and huge stigma attached to certain issues here,” Cusack, 34, told the Irish Voice during a phone interview.
Cusack will take part in an open discussion and information session on mental health in conjunction with New York GAA and the Aisling Irish Community Center on Friday, April 25 at St. Barnabas elementary school auditorium, 413 East 241st Street, Woodlawn, at 7 p.m.
“The importance of this evening is to open the door on a variety of issues from depression to suicide and alcohol related issues that affect many people in the Irish community, particularly immigrants,” Cusack said.
“The GAA is seen as the ultimate warrior sport, from endurance right down to physicality, so it’s a huge deal to open the door on these taboos and get the community talking.”
Cusack bravely spoke out about his own personal battle with depression last year. In 2014 he moved to break down further stigmas by revealing that he is gay. His older brother, All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Donal Og, came out as gay several years ago.
Cusack acknowledged the fact that many Irish towns are now trying to fill the void left by the huge surge in youth emigration, but those who leave – many of them forced to because of a lack of employment at home – can and often do suffer even more.
It has widely been accepted that emigration can intensify feelings of isolation and depression, and Cusack says there is immense emotional baggage attached to leaving Ireland.
“There has been a massive emigration trend in recent years and of course there is a weighted emotional baggage that the Irish tend to bottle up,” he says.
“Alcohol can be a factor in this. People try to fill the void. Many emigrants are missing the community and security attached to the GAA or family and friends, and the life they left behind. The dangers of alcohol can be very harmful and scary.”
Cusack told the Irish Voice about the huge strides the GAA in Ireland has made in recent years in coming to terms with sexuality and issues surrounding depression.
“The GAA is unwinding from other voices of the past to lend itself to being much more open in terms of many discussions and being a voice on their own,” says Cusack.
“The Irish GAA has made huge strides in recent years in terms of tackling sexuality and depression.”
The GAA recently held its first National Health and Wellbeing Seminar in Croke Park with a keynote address from Cusack, who has been appointed to the new National GAA Health and Wellbeing Committee.
“The fact that the GAA asked me to become part of this is a huge reflection of how far we have come. The fact that I am attracted to other men doesn’t mean anything in this decision,” says Cusack.
“I have had huge support since coming out as a gay man a few months ago, support from the GAA and other sports stars such as professional rugby players lending their support.”
Though the support is now there, the time was not so long ago when gay male athletes wouldn’t have considered revealing their sexuality. Witness in America, when a firestorm erupted after the pro basketball player Jason Collins came out last year, the first pro American athlete to do so.
“I don’t think anyone should feel they have to talk publicly about anything to do with their mental health or sexuality,” Cusack said when asked about athletes coming out.
But he praised the likes of Collins and Michael Sam, the college football player who came out earlier this year.
“It helps to shatter the stereotype that is associated with gay people, a stereotype that is reinforced through comedies like the TV show Will & Grace where the characteristics are generally non sporty and display very feminine characteristics,” he said.
“It’s one of the greatest tragedies of society that we have conditioned girls to possess mostly feminine qualities and conditioned boys with mostly masculine qualities.
“What Jason Collins and others are succeeding in showing is that men that are attracted to other men have all the capacity and ability to play contact, physical sports and be as tough, brave and competitive as any other type of athlete.
“The other major benefit is that it gives visibility and hope for others that may be struggling with their sexuality to have somebody they can identify with and get support from, either directly or indirectly. The gift of doing that could be more rewarding than any Super Bowl ring or World Series title.”
Speaking on his own battle with depression and coming out, Cusack said that in the weeks since he’s been back training, he hasn’t experienced any form of discrimination on the field.
“There have been no issues in relation to my blogs on both my experience with my mental health or my sexuality,” he shared.
“The greatest form of respect that I have got from opposition teams is that their defenders are treating me the same as they have done for the last 19 years, belting and flaking me with hurleys for 60 minutes.”
In a recent interview he gave in Ireland Cusack, who still plays hurling with his local Cloyne club in Cork, revealed he had been the victim of homophobic bullying in the immediate wake of his coming out. Cusack said he felt sorry for the person who wrote the word “fag” on his van in the days after he revealed that he was attracted to men.
"I came out the door in the morning and as I went around the door of my van I saw the word 'fag' written on my van. The first thing that came to my head was cigarettes,” he said.
"I got this feeling in the pit of my stomach, and it was similar to the feeling when I was being bullied all those years ago and for a split second I thought about retreating back into the house, but I got into the van.
"I realized that the people that were bullying me were actually victims as well as they were in a place of darkness. I have a deep empathy for those people.”
Cusack is looking forward to telling his story and spreading his message in New York.
“I’m really looking forward to the event, sharing ideas and forging new alliances of hope, awareness and services for our people,” he says.
“We have come a long way in Ireland in the past number of years in tackling these issues and sexuality in the game, but perhaps there is still a long way to go in places like America and this is why we must continue to spread the message.”
For more information on the April 25 event, call 914-237-5121 or visit www.aislingcenter.org.