Column: Exploring The Relationship Between Mental Health And The GAA

In this week’s column, Dr Aimee NicAmhlaoidh, who works as a clinical psychologist, explores the relationship between Mental Health and the GAA…

The GAA’s mental charter is intended to help clubs develop a healthy perspective when it comes to mental health. It’s split into several key components: Respect, Encouraging, Supportive, Positive, Enabling, Considerate, and Tolerant.  

Each component does it’s best to address the fundamentals of their creed “Give Respect Get Respect.” Yet, despite this outline on the fundamentals, the GAA community continues to deal with concerns surrounding Mental Health. 

There are several reasons why this is the case. For one, the seven components listed, while well-meaning, may be interpreted in ways that the mental charter didn’t predict. GAA is a sport, and this means that, as a player, you’re dealing with a variety of pressures. 


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Externally, you have the problems concerning other teams. Hazing, rude comments, all the way up to harsh criticisms. These may be addressed somewhat within the sport. Those involved could take into consideration possible legislation or fines to control unnecessary treatment within the sport. 

It doesn’t control the opinions of fans, however. Being a member of a sport provides more in the way of responsibility than “Maintain peak health and perform your best”. You become a public figure. Fame comes with its share of stress, from being viewed, not as a person, but as an object. Even in the best-case scenario, surrounded by adoring fans, you are singled out, and treated differently from everyone else. 

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Then, there are the bad times.

Perhaps you or your team didn’t perform well. Or perhaps you’re dealing with a fan from a rival team. Some people may just be jealous of your opportunities and success. This may lead to situations where you suffer abuse, verbal, or in some cases, physical. 

That’s for the people at the top. For those struggling to gain the limelight, you have a different set of issues. While you work yourself to your absolute limit, it appears that you’re just not ready to make the breakthrough.

This can be explained due to a variety of reasons:

– Genetics on the individual level.

– Politics within the industry. 

– The success and historical significance of your team. 

In all these cases, it can be explained that, while things are not perfect, at least you’re a part of the GAA. While this is meant to be helpful, it doesn’t stop the individual from experiencing the negatives relating to these stresses.  

Those are external issues.

Internally, we have to consider the pressures within the team. Newbies trying to make their mark within an established group. Tried and tested veterans who find they’re not bouncing back from the injuries like they used to. Then there’s the concerns of the individual’s health. 

Like all peak performance, including exceptional athletes, GAA members have a short window in which to be successful. No doubt modern media have placed added pressure. The constant access to information, and the ease in which one can complain have put these public figures under the spotlight, further separating them from the general public and the ideas of a regular life and all the mental stability that it affords. 

Concerns with mental health can come in a variety of forms, and without the ability to accurately define the routes taken which lead to mental health concerns, it’s hard to predict what’s going on until we’re actually seeing the results. 

Internalised struggles limit those closest, both professionally and personally from seeing the signs of a deteriorating mental health. It would be easy to say the answer is to express ourselves. That an externalised expression of our angst and anger would help. 

The problem with this is often that people don’t respond well to what are often considered unsociable behaviours. Letting out your anger, while no doubt freeing in the moment, may be seen as a sign of mental instability, anti-social behaviour or worse. 

In everyday life, it’s often the case that while well-meaning parties encourage the expression of depression, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts, the truth is, we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to deal with this. 


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The seventies brought with it the age of the medical treatment. A far more human approach to the 50’s and their standards of electrocution and lobotomy for treatment which these days are managed more effectively and humanely. Still, the medical treatment of mental illness has shown to act more as a buffer, or a blanket as shown with the variety of symptoms found in the Prozac generation. 

Modern approaches tend to resort to medical treatments for the outliers, people who suffer from biological issues such as a low-serotonin regulation in those with chronic depression. For the general, everyday person, therapy seems to provide some benefit. 

While differing on the reasons for its success, therapy seems to help in addressing the need to accept how one feels. Not to ignore it, to push it away, or consider it a weakness as found in the previous generations. It seems that addressing your feelings provides the opportunity to create a dialogue.  

So, what could the GAA community do to help its members?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan, a mentor, or someone who thinks the whole thing is silly and wants to vent their rage on social media. Either or, the answer remains the same. What we need to do is remember that these players are people. 

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For most of us, we’re too busy in our daily lives to consider this.

The players are entertainers, people to cheer and or people to boo. Stress chemicals such as cortisol can cause permanent damage to the brain over time, literally affecting how you interpret the world around you. 

Making efforts to move past the fact the rival team won the match on a technicality. That you just lost money because the guy you bet on to score three goals only managed two. Yes, this is annoying, but is this really worth labelling someone as sub-human?    

What can the GAA do to help protect its members?

There’s always going to be the problem of a business finding itself with a decision, whether to consider its employee on a human level or as a tool for profit. 

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Sports and celebrity lives are no different. Tales of stars being given just about every treatment possible to get them to go out and perform.

In the aftermath, we’ve seen those same people fall to substance abuse, mental health issues, and personal problems. In these moments, the individual ceases to be as profitable and are often discarded. 

Cold as it is, the GAA is a business. Its ability to provide quality content at many fine establishments is a direct result of good business management. It’s a shame, however, that business management rarely concerns itself with its people once they cease to be as profitable. 

Here lies the problem. Players are expected to push themselves to peak performance. With a limited window to succeed, while fighting off injuries, internal problems with teams, and the external concerns of fans, and the life of a ‘‘celebrity’’. 

This lifestyle is no doubt always going to create concerns for both the mental and physical wellbeing of its players. What the industry can do to help is put some thought into the player outside of the football pitch. To understand and provide something of a security net to ensure that once the player has passed their window of excellence, that they’re not left abandoned and broken without any support.   


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Five things the GAA player can do to maintain a healthy lifestyle: 

  1. Plan ahead. The window as a sports athlete is a short one. It’s best to save your money, whether to invest in other business ventures, or to make a little nest egg to take care of your family. Thinking about the future will help better deal with the momentary stress when the time arises. Planning ahead will put things into perspective, and no doubt make decisions that better you long term that much easier. Planning ahead provides opportunities.  
  1. Surround yourself with people who help your well-being in the long term. It’s easy for everyone, not just a celebrity athlete to find ourselves surrounded by people who benefit us in the short term. They are fun, exciting, and always ready for parties. Maybe some of these people are happy to be by your side no matter what, but for the vast majority they’re fair weather friends, showing little interest the moment you give up the life of a party monster in favour of someone who wants a long and peaceful life. 
  1. Remember that you’re not what other people think you are. A tough one for anyone in the spotlight. Whether adored or hated, from the top of management down to the guy on the streets, people will try and tell you what you are. This is best greeted as a mirror, more how you come across than what you are. Most will never know the struggles you go with, often the very same struggles we all experience. No-one can define you but yourself and the actions you choose to take.  
  1. Remember to be humble. Time and time again we’ve watched the celebrity world crumble under the weight of its ego. You spend so long listening to people tell you how great you are, and you start to believe it. Truth is, you are fortunate enough to be able to live your dream, but that doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else. You have the responsibility to show them that there’s more to life than a cynical attitude, and that dreams really can come true. 
  1. Remember to have fun. You’re in a position that most will never reach. You’re a member of the entertainment business. A hero to some, a villain to others. You’re going to try and rationalise life, to make it fit neat and tidy in a little box. But it doesn’t work. Life is too strange, wonderful, and frightening. The best you can do is acknowledge that it’s all a matter of chance, and here you are, with the opportunity to amaze millions. 

This article was written by Dr Aimee NicAmhlaoidh, D. Clin. Psych.


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