By Shaun Casey
ON Friday night, Armagh Ladies footballer Aoife Lennon will sit on a panel along with inter-county referee David Gough, ex-Antrim goalkeeper Chris Kerr and Diarmuid McConville, an All-Ireland club winner with Crossmaglen, to discuss mental health issues.
The ‘Let’s Get Talking’ evening will focus on the importance of mental health with the four speakers talking about their own experiences.
Lennon has been outspoken on her own difficulties with mental health issues and is involved in a number of different events throughout the entire year to help “breakdown the stigma” of people holding back their emotions and seeking help.
“We’re all going through our own mental health journey in different ways and some people are affected more than others,” said Lennon, an ex-Northern Ireland soccer player, who battled with an eating disorder and struggled to deal with the grief of losing her father to suicide at just 13 years of age.
“We all process things differently so what could happen to me, someone else could process it differently if it happened to them. What was a stigma years ago was to not talk about your emotions and don’t talk about your feelings and it’s so easy to push it all under the table.
“But now we are realizing that suppressed trauma and suppressed emotions is actually leading to physical health and conditions in the body, because the mind and body are connected.
“When you don’t deal with the stress and we’re running away from the emotions or not dealing with them, we’re just leading ourselves to falling and that’s what has been happening. It’s really profound now that, everyone is affected in their own way and in some way.
“I just think that the more we talk out and breakdown that stigma, then it frees everybody to be vulnerable. It can become shameful for people that you have a mental health problem but it’s actually normal for us all to fell these emotions.
“It’s just that it’s not made normal in society. For me, it’s massive because on Friday night, we’re going to hear a range of different stories, and each are unique and individual.”
Lennon explains that the “event” of something happening to someone is quite often not what causes the mental health issues, but how their mind and body reacts.
“The event has not been the issue; it’s been what’s happened inside of us that has caused the mental health issues to dissolve and evaporate in that sense.
“The event was so painful, but it was also so painful inside of us and I think that’s what trauma is. It’s getting to understand that trauma is not the event, it’s actually what happens inside of you as a person.”
The four sports personalities will recount their own mental health journeys and Lennon believes it’s important to identify men and women that play sport as people first and then players.
“I think people just think it’s a player and it’s evident that society just sees a picture and they just see the player arriving at the game and playing a match but there’s so much more behind the scenes,” added Lennon on the issues for sports people dealing with mental health issues.
“Nobody sees the horrendous days that you have as a sports person. For me, I’d like to change that to the idea of meeting the person first and the more we meet the person then the player develops.
“Last week I held an event (with Sean Cavanagh, Cora Staunton and Matthew Bell) around the journey beyond sports because all these high-performance sports stars still have a life.
“They still have things going on in their life but it’s just people think it’s masked by that high-performance. For me, sport became a coping mechanism in a way but saved my life also.
“So, people can use sport as a way to cope with daily life and I think it’s highlighting that we all face some sort of diversity in life, but it’s how we overcome them and how we use those challenges then to evolve as a person and into the next chapters of our lives.”
While the event on Friday night, held in the Jack Bratton Centre in Abbey Park, the home ground of Armagh Harps, may be coming from a sporting angle, Lennon insists that the discussion on the evening will be helpful for anyone and encourages people to come along.
“I think it’s so important that we continue to have nights like this. If somebody felt low and didn’t want to go on Friday night, my advice would be if you can take whatever inside of your heart or the strength and courage to be there.
“There might be one thing that you’ll hear on Friday night or get to talk to one person that could change your life.
“It’s moments like this sometimes when you’re in those dark days because I know what it feels like when you don’t know how you’re going to get through or you don’t want to go.
“But it’s just giving yourself that extra wee bit of faith and courage and trust to think that you could go here and ultimately change your life and that this event could be happening for a reason.
“If we can start to see that then we could start to have people to get there. There could be something in it that could really profoundly change everything for them, and I think that’s the importance of event like this.
“They’re there for everybody, it’s not just that if you’re an athlete or a sports person, it’s for everybody that’s going through at a tough time or even just for people that find life hard in general and they need some inspiration, they need somebody to maybe chat to you.
“It mightn’t look like it’s anything big but to somebody like that it is so it’s for everybody and it’s not just for sports stars. It’s continuously having these open conversations that we hope can break down barriers for people to be vulnerable, authentic and to truly be themselves.”