Tackling a different foe

sport1In the Ireland of today, I believe it would be a difficult undertaking to find someone who has been unaffected by suicide. Whether directly or indirectly, the level to which this problem affects us knows no bounds. The numbers of those dying as a result of mental illness, by taking their own lives, are staggering, overwhelming even. Mental illness is incredibly complex. Each case differs and each and every one suffering from what can at times be a crippling and debilitating disease deserves to be afforded the respect of individuality. Not every case may be treated the same.  No case, no sufferer, no person may be ignored.

In the bid to tackle this problem, to simply offer help as best we can, we must look to the daily lives, to the environment, to the community, to the world of those who suffer and ask how those who share that world can help, whether they be a friend, a colleague, a classmate, a peer, and perhaps one of the most intriguing relationships – a teammate.  I would imagine that a world where strength is valued above most other qualities, where striving to win is the daily pursuit, where letting people down is never an option, where poor performances, poor results are lambasted, where the individual must be consumed by the collective, can be a difficult one to inhabit when you are at war with your mind, suffering from an inner turmoil. In the same breath, I will say that a world where comradery creates a bond at once powerful, potent, resilient and irrepressible, is the perfect and most apt world from which to both offer and seek help.

The hidden side

In recent times, the issue of mental illness at play in the sporting world has come to the fore as many brave athletes have used more sinew and courage than was ever needed on the field of play to publicly discuss their struggles. The famous cricketer Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, much loved for his charismatic and gregarious personality, described his struggle with mental illness as a “crippling psychological injury”- an image full of potency. He openly described the difficulties of coping with a clinical depression in the pressurised environment of professional cricket. Freddie spoke of stigma, and adopted personas as the hidden side of sport. Closer to home, Ireland and Munster rugby star Alan Quinlan has been open about the fact that the ill-judged ‘macho’ perception of rugby players hindered him in seeking help for his condition. The heart-breaking and tragic death of Gary Speed, in particular, prompted many to contemplate whether the sporting world has a handle on mental illness.

How might the stigma be eradicated? How might attitudes of perceived ‘weaknesses’ be changed? This article does not intend however, to chronicle a history of depression and sport, nor detail how these issues may be solved. Each individual case of anguish caused by a mental illness is too complex and multifarious for one ‘solves all’ solution. Our approach must be broad and multifaceted. Above all, the message at its heart must be that help is always there, even if those in need are not asking for it. The true purpose of this piece is to raise awareness of one particular technique aimed at helping those bearing the unbearable – with the ultimate objective at its centre being the prevention of suicide. Whether or not sport is ‘handling’ mental illness is simply an extraneous digression. The QPR training programme is rather evidence of its trying to help.

QPR at play

The Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) method is intended as an emergency mental health intervention for those at risk of taking their own lives. It was originally founded by American clinical psychologist Paul Quinnett, is run by The QPR Institute and has been initiated as a suicide prevention technique in this country by charity Console. It has since been finding its way into the world of sport. Its focus is training people to recognise the warning signs associated with a suicide crisis and to teach people to help that someone out of the crisis through the use of questioning, persuasion and referral. The technique intends to be likened to CPR. They are seen as kindred in that early recognition is at their core, they both provide a method of response, and in the hope that ultimately, they will both save lives. While QPR aims to be used effectively in all walks of life and facets of society, it could be of particular and indeed significant help to the sporting community. Team mates and other members of a sporting outfit are seen as strategically positioned to recognise and subsequently refer a fellow member out of a suicide crisis, due perhaps to their inimitable interaction and relationship with one another.

To date, Irish rugby players from both Munster and Connacht have received the training, along with numerous GAA clubs around the country. IRUPA, the Irish Rugby Union Players Association. described their taking part in the training as an “unqualified success”, with former player Marcus Horan stating that, “A lot of guys would now be confident in the fact that they may be able to spot the signs of someone in potential crisis.”  QPR suicide prevention was also endorsed by English soccer club Queens Park Rangers, while at their pre-season training base in Carton House, Co. Kildare, in August. No doubt the similarity in acronym was not lost on Harry Redknapp, who along with players Rio Ferdinand and Richard Dunne, put their weight behind Console and ‘the other’ QPR. Rather fittingly, the club and charity were originally united by Leslie Haylock Speed, sister of Gary. Console’s director of services, Ciaran Austin has stated that the charity is responding to a need. “This programme shows people how to broach the topic with someone they’re worried about. The programme gives you different approaches and the wording that is most appropriate for a situation. It explains about how to persuade the person to get help. It deals with listening skills and empathy, as well as providing a lot of practical help in dealing with the issue and where to refer people to for help,” he said. He has also stated that communities must take responsibility for suicide and affect change. “Strategies, funding and services are very important but we must not lose sight of the fact that family, friends, neighbours, and communities can really affect change and make a difference to people in crisis and hopefully prevent suicide.” Arguably then, the sporting community is doing just that – taking responsibility, affecting change, offering a helping hand and, more than that, attempting to save lives.

Hope and help

It would be wrong of me to shirk from the fact that at first I had my doubts about QPR and sport. As someone who has been bereaved by suicide, it is difficult to reconcile the individual experience of a loved one with a uniform approach to a suicide crisis. Through further research, though, I have learned that it is not a uniform approach. It is the exact opposite. What QPR truly aims to do is to provide skills that are adaptable. Not all crises will be the same. Nor is the help provided through QPR. I have certainly never bought into the idea that sport itself is always to blame for an athlete’s’ mental illness. For some, I believe it is actually a refuge from inner pain. By adopting the use of QPR however, the sporting world has sent the message that sporting life need not be a place to escape, nor a pressurised world in which you must suffer silently, but a place in which to address your problems, where someone will always have your back- a sporting cliché that takes on a far greater significance in this context. For this I am whole-heartedly proud of the sporting community. QPR is not just about offering hope, but legitimate help. While at first I may have looked at the QPR method with askance, I would now give it my imprimatur, though the admirable people at Console need no such bestowal.


In July of this year, I lost my cousin to suicide and it shattered my family’s entire world. Dan was, despite a terrible clinical depression, an exceptionally talented young rugby player. I do not intend to inspire pathos, nor do I wish to solicit or invite sympathy by writing this. I want simply to highlight the harrowing reality that is loss by suicide. Dreams are not simply broken but obliterated. When former Cork hurler Conor Cusack so inspiringly divulged the details of his illness to the Irish public, I used to dream that one day Dan would be playing for Leinster and also giving hope to others by speaking about what he had gone through and recovered from. That dream is worth nothing now. Those words are left unsaid, those ambitions left unfulfilled, that Senior Cup jersey left unworn. A cause of immeasurable worth however, is the dream of making QPR succeed in its goal. I for one will be rooting for its success and I know Dan will be too. Do your part and get involved.

If you would like to learn more about getting involved with QPR, details can be found on www.console.ie.