IRUPA CEO Omar Hassanein was in Belfast on Tuesday night to speak as part of IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings panel discussions concerning mental health issues in rugby.
Ulster and Ireland winger Tommy Bowe was at the event and said that it was encouraging to see “that IRUPA have committed to helping the rugby community and beyond come together and learn how to tackle their feelings”.
IRUPA CEO Omar Hassanein said that he is hoping that players like Tommy Bowe and Jack McGrath, as well as former players like Alan Quinlan, can use their profile to help encourage players to be open about their mental well-being, and while rugby still has some ways to go in terms of addressing the broader issue of mental health, it’s come a long way in the last 20 years.
“I guess all players deal with it differently but I guess if you turn the clock back 10 or 20 years it would have been a very different scenario,” Hassanein told Pundit Arena.
“I think players are realising, as well as all of the public and not just high-level athletes, that mental health issues are the same as physical health issues in that they are very similar.
“If you’ve got an injured shoulder you go to the doctor and it’s the same with mental health. It’s being broken down a lot better in that way now, and I think that players are a lot more forthcoming with how they’re feeling.
“The other thing is mental health can be regarded as clinical psychology, but I think that when you get to a point where someone has mental health issues, it relates to their performance and then it becomes a performance issue as well.
“I think that’s where players don’t want to get into that space where it affects their performance as well.”
Hassenein also used the example of Leinster and Ireland prop Jack McGrath and his progressive willingness to talk about the death of his brother while he was trying to break into the Leinster team. McGrath lost his brother to suicide in 2010 when he was just 20-years-old and initially tried to overcome the passing by just focusing on his rugby.
“I was trying to become a professional rugby player, that was a distraction from it,” McGrath told the Irish Independent in March.
“Then trying to break into the Leinster team, that was a distraction from it. Then trying to break into the Irish rugby team, that was a distraction from it.
“I got to a point in my own life that I had to start talking about something. For me, it’s something I want to make people aware of and it is ok to be vulnerable, and it is ok to talk about your feelings.
“That’s the message I’m trying to get across; when I was in my bad stage of anxiety I eventually just woke up one morning, I’d had this knot in my stomach for two years, and I just woke up one morning and said ‘I cant do this anymore, I can’t have this feeling anymore.’”
“So that was the day that changed me forever. It’s funny how, even from the smallest thing, it doesn’t have to be death, it just has to be something that really upsets you as a person, if you just open up and speak about it, it is really incredible how much better that can make you feel.”
Hassanein commended McGrath for his courage and also said that the 26-year-old prop is helping break down barriers with his willingness to speak.
“To use Jack’s example, Jack was very reserved about the fact that his brother had taken his own life.
To some degree, the large majority of his Leinster teammates didn’t even know prior to this so he’s come out and used this platform to come out and speak to the public about his own experiences but also his own teammates.
“He’s been very open about something that he’s previously been very closed off about. You look at the old macho rugby player and Jack is as macho as any of them.
He’s one of the best front rowers in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment and he’s very happy to sit down and talk, and do workshops, and do videos, and help whoever needs it.”
IRUPA have another panel discussion in Dublin next week and plan to do more events within the next two years to increase public awareness in rugby with their Tackle Your Feelings Campaign.
Tackle Your Feelings is a mental wellbeing campaign, developed and delivered by IRUPA, which sees provincial and international rugby stars come forward to tell their own personal story of the issues they have faced on and off the pitch.
Jack O’ Toole, Pundit Arena