Cavan GAA player Alan O'Mara speaks about being a sportsperson and coping with the pressures
Growing up, the one statistic that always stuck with me was that one out of four people would experience depression. I never thought I would be that person but I was wrong.
My slide downwards was a gradual one after the All-Ireland u21 Final in 2011 for Cavan and over the following six months I ignored all the signs and warning signals that my mind and body emitted. I regularly turned a blind eye to opportunities to reach out for help and to connect with those around me because I didn’t know how to describe how I was feeling. I let stigma overpower me and kept it all to myself.
The darkest part of my depression was the moment when my brain sought to take advantage of my uncertainty and urged me to crash my car into the wall. It suggested it as a logical way for me to end the internal conversations that questioned my existence so persistently.
In my hour of need, I turned to the Gaelic Players Association and the help and support they provided for me is something I will never forget. Counselling was the most enlightening and empowering experience of my life as I learned so much about myself and about depression in general. I understood that we all have feelings and emotions and accepted that sometimes they will be happy, while others sad. That is just part of life and the world we live in throws up many inevitable challenges. I thought that vulnerability was a weakness but I was wrong.
I went public about experiencing depression for the first time in 2013 and soon after played for Cavan during our march to an All-Ireland senior quarter-final against Kerry, which was our best run for quite sometime. Despite that achievement, as I stood on the field in Croke Park taking on greats like Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan, I knew something still wasn’t right within me. It took me a number of months to realise that I wasn’t coping with the pressures that came with being a sportsman in the right way.
After leaving the topsy-turvy world of inter-county football once more due to another deep spell of depression, I prioritised achieving a clear understanding of my emotional wellbeing above any sporting dreams that I had. I promised myself that I would not pull on the Cavan jersey again until I had a better understanding of my wellbeing. For too long I needed my performances on the field to make me feel good off of it. My identity was so intertwined with playing for my county but I finally realised how toxic that was.
Thankfully, my relationship with football has changed for the better. Simply put, it no longer defines who I am as a person and in 2016 I returned to the fold to help Cavan secure promotion to the top division of the Allianz Football Leagues.
Remember, should you ever feel like I did, you don’t have to tell everyone. Just tell one person; someone you trust. Open up to a parent, friend, partner, sibling, teacher or coach. Depression tries to make you feel like you are the only person in the world to feel that way but it is simply not the case. Help comes in different forms. It is a conversation with someone you trust or it can be picking up the phone to the Samaritans or Pieta House. It can be a visit to a supportive website like SpunOut.ie or YourMentalHealth.ie.
It fills me with great pride that organisations like the GAA and Newstalk are promoting such positive and important messages around wellbeing to their large audiences and for me, the fact that a mental health discussion is taking place at Electric Picnic is proof that change for the better is underway. However, we must not rest on our laurels.
Change doesn’t happen by itself; we all have to be the change. Start a revolution in your family, school, college or workplace. Be more open and compassionate. Shatter the silence. Our country needs you to breakdown the stigma and we can all do that one conversation at a time.
Hope to see you for a chat at EP!
Alan O’Mara is the founder of ‘Real Talks’ and the author of ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ – the book is an account of an ordinary young man, a GAA star, who found a way to move past the dark thoughts that beset his mind during his worst days, and who discovered that the only way out of the darkness is to ask for help.
Newstalk will host a panel discussion in association with Pieta House on 'Being a sportsperson, coping with the pressures' Sunday, Sept. 4th at 5pm. Alan Quinlan with host the discussion, with Alan O'Mara, 2012 Olympian Jessie Barr, Ireland Rugby star Hannah Tyrrell and Brian Higgins, CEO of Pieta House joining him on the panel.