As part of The Big Picture, RTÉ’s groundbreaking series on youth mental health, RTÉ sports journalist and presenter Evanne Ní Chuilinn chaired a panel on sport and youth mental health.

Here, Evanne discusses how social media plays a role in affecting youth mental health, the pros and the pitfalls of being engrossed in sport, and the ongoing work of sports bodies in Ireland to better protect youth mental health.

A sense of belonging

Former Offaly footballer Niall McNamee was a guest on our ‘The Big Picture’ production by the RTÉ Sports Department. Niall has struggled with, and overcome a severe gambling addiction. He has spent time in rehabilitation and counselling, and has a valuable birdseye view of the road to recovery for young people, or people of any age in overcoming a mental health issue. He articulated an opinion and a perspective I hadn’t given much if any thought to before. He said, the dressing room environment can be helpful, but it can also be harmful.

Players, and particularly boys and young men, can be pigeonholed into ‘just’ being macho footballers, without any appreciation for the person behind that facade. It can mean that when they do stop playing, or take a break from the game, or spend time out with an injury, they struggle with their identity and their free time, and they begin to wonder who they are and where they fit in the world.

That sense of ‘belonging’ was a point picked up on by Colin Regan, the GAA’s Community and Health Manager in Croke Park. He was at pains to point out that the message of positive mental health and its promotion within clubs has to be about young people feeling that they’re part of a bigger movement, part of a community or a tribe. You’re a cog in a wheel and you have a place and a purpose. Balancing that feeling of belonging without losing a sense of self is something that the coaches and mentors working with Colin around the country are looking out for.

Preventing burnout

Lauralee Walsh, a former Ireland Rugby International and Westmeath footballer reminded us that so much has changed since her generation was beginning their journey as young footballers or camogie players. Take the 1990s – there wasn’t the same focus or awareness of player welfare. That phrase, ‘player welfare’ has almost become a buzzword now, but it’s important to remember that the roots of the movement sprung from dissatisfaction, exhaustion, and conflict with the powers that be. None of that promotes positive mental health but since the inception of the GPA, the WGPA and more recently the CPA, these organisations have a remit within the Gaelic Games family, and their calls for support make headlines. The language around welfare, burnout and support has been normalised, which means that our younger players have come to expect certain standards, and that’s a positive step.

Sport is a beautiful thing. It’s about friends, fitness, and fun. It can also be about winning. And, in certain circumstances, so it should be. But we have a responsibility as a society to make sure that our children taking part in juvenile academies are not solely focused on winning. That mentality at such a young age can create unrealistic expectations, which could lead to any number of emotional reactions down the line. Lauralee and Colin were unanimous in their message about promoting a more holistic approach by coaches, at all

levels, to a player’s development. It’s about treating and coaching the person, and not the player. All of this goes back to Niall’s point about having an identity beyond the football. We need to make sure that young people are not being put into the box of either 'good footballer' or 'bad footballer'.

The most significant group of players at risk of burnout are young people in third level education. They play on a third level team, a club team and maybe even a county team. Some, though numbers are decreasing, are dual players. But at the very least, this cohort of young stars have three different managers.

I’ve spoken to players in the past about the struggle to be all all things to all people. It’s an enormous pressure for a 20-year-old to bear. You might have a club manager who wants you to play twice a week, a county manager who needs you three times a week, including a competitive match. Then maybe you’re travelling from Dublin to Longford, or further afield.

Crucially, those three managers are most likely not speaking to one another about the welfare of that player. Granted, those lines of communication are getting stronger and more obvious, but it’s a message we need to keep pedalling. These are young people who have friends and family and studies and a social life. Coach the person, not the player. And communicate.

Afraid to speak out

Lauralee was strong on the channels of communication. That ideal of a more holistic approach to coaching has become more commonplace, but those coaches also need to be accessible. Most football and hurling and camogie managers are brilliant. They’re passionate and selfless and love to see their players flourish. But others (the minority) are grumpy and brash and intimidating. Young people cannot be put in a position where they are afraid to speak out, because the vast majority will avoid ‘making a fuss’. If a manager is difficult to approach, players will take the easy route and plough on with a schedule or a situation that is making them miserable. Young players need to feel free to speak out and say, "I’m not coping". It’s that simple.

Lauralee is an advocate for the cocoon that a club and a team can provide in a time of trouble. She had a brother who passed away by suicide, and it was an absolute jolt to her tight knit family. Lauralee went through her own struggle afterwards, one which I can personally relate to. It’s very difficult to come to terms with losing a sibling in that manner and everyone will go through their own process of grief. But Lauralee credits her sport and her teammates in helping her deal with that tragic loss. They rallied around her, and she knew that somebody always had her back. That kind of support is so simple, and it’s quite difficult to articulate the effect it has, but it can be a great comfort to know that you’ve grown up in a culture of empathy and support. Those are the kinds of clubs and teams we want to nurture in the GAA.

Trial by social media

Social media is double edged sword. Match updates are brilliant. Twitter is the best place to find score updates if a feed isn’t available on TV, but I would worry at times about that very immediacy. A tweet or a post or a picture can go up within a second of something happening in a match. And it might be a match that’s not on television, it might be a match that would otherwise go unnoticed. It might be a really bad mistake by a defender and it will get blown up beyond all proportion. The problem with that, is the inevitable comments underneath. We all make mistakes on the football pitch, but we don’t all have it pored over and dissected by would-be experts with a twitter handle.

In a trial by social media, everybody has an opinion, and those opinions are not censored. We’ve seen young sports people take their own lives - and you can’t help but wonder what

effect that constant online, and offline, scrutiny had on them.

The need for role models

Niall McNamee and Lauralee Walsh are role models. But once upon a time, they needed a role model. I think the closer to home a role model is, the more impact they have. High profile players like Dublin’s Philly McMahon or Kilkenny’s Michael Fennelly have been championing a message of positive mental health and fitness. So have Niall and Lauralee, and they’ve had the courage to describe their battles with mental health, and the journey they took in recovery. These people are accessible, and their value knows no bounds. They continue to help young people, and we are grateful for their time in this initiative for RTÉ’s, The Big Picture.

Evanne's article is part of RTÉ's The Big Picture - Youth Mental Health series, which aims to shine a light on one of the most important issues in the country right now and features special content across TV, radio and digital. 

RTÉ Sport's Evanne Ní Chuilinn hosted a special GAA panel discussion on the RTÉ Player focusing on the efforts to promote wellbeing and mental health in clubs throughout the country featuring Westmeath footballer Laura Lee Walsh, Offaly footballer Niall McNamee and Colin Regan, GAA Community and Health Manager. Watch it now: www.rte.ie/player

RTÉ News on television, radio, mobile and online reported on some of the key current issues affecting youth mental health from around the country along with dedicated digital news stories. To catch up, follow RTÉ News on Facebook, twitter and instagram.

RTÉ also provides a comprehensive list of helplines and support services available to help people at www.rte.ie/support