Giving men their mojo back and tackling mental health

Derek McDonnell is director of Mojo, which was founded in 2011 in response to high levels of suicide, particularly among men in south County Dublin

Derek McDonnell, director of Mojo, a service which addresses the issue of suicide among men. Photograph: Eric Luke

Derek McDonnell, director of Mojo, a service which addresses the issue of suicide among men. Photograph: Eric Luke


I started working in community development nationally and internationally about 18 years ago. I trained in youth and community development in Liberty College Dublin. I have a degree in counselling/psychology with the Personal Counselling Institute and I have a master’s in human rights from Keele University in England.

The South County Dublin Partnership wanted to do something in an integrated fashion to address the issue of suicide among men. I was recruited initially just to carry out research.

I fell in love with the work and got the job of programme manager. I am the director now and a winner of a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland 2015 Elevator award whose main sponsor is DCC Plc.

Mojo places a huge emphasis on building a collective response from all the statutory and non-statutory agencies. It is different in that the participants are viewed as equal partners in the programme and provide peer-to-peer support.

Whether you are a psychiatrist or a community worker, there is equality. Changes are made to each training programme based on the feedback of participants. We have two counselling services – Pieta House and the Village Counselling Service in Tallaght.

Men are referred to the programme by GPs, the mental health services, the probation and welfare services and self-referrals. The service consists of a 12-week training programme for two mornings a week. It includes building wellness, life planning, physical fitness and social skills. The results have been phenomenal.

Mojo has 89 per cent participant retention and 70 per cent of the participants return to work or volunteering or on to another service. We are looking to see how we can reach other men across the country.

Men are notoriously difficult to engage in any kind of movement, especially around those to do with mental health. We wanted to brand it in a way that would be attractive to men.

Kitchen table office

My office is my kitchen table. Because what I’m doing is really stressful, I start every day with meditation. I am trying to think of a different way of organising.

I have two programme managers, one in Tallaght and one in Kildare. They’re employed within the organisations that are hosting them. It is a challenge for us to develop the Mojo practice because obviously, the organisations we work for have their own policies and procedures.

I don’t line-manage the programme managers but I try to mentor. It’s a new way of organising. I don’t have a template to work from. I’m developing Mojo as we go so it is experiential learning in its purest form.

Every day, I have challenges from the different organisations I’m working with. We have to negotiate lots of ways of making sure that we’re continuing the practice of Mojo.

We engage the men as equal partners in the process. No matter how unwell the men are, it’s up to them how they want to see themselves in the future. We don’t diagnose them. We don’t treat them. We are there to work in the best possible way for them to feel better about themselves and make positive changes.

For me, the meditation really grounds me. I can get distracted quite easily. I try to set myself an agenda every day and set out who I need to speak to and what I want to achieve each day. Part of my work at the moment is finding government partners to help me upscale Mojo.

The National Office of Suicide Prevention is happy to be one of our partners. However, we need to form some kind of alliance among the different (Government) partners in order to fund Mojo further, so a lot of my work is trying to connect with the right people in each department. Every day, I’m learning more about how the Government is structured.

Mojo has been built on a lot of coffees. There are lots of meetings, negotiating and cajoling. I don’t generally take No for an answer.

If I get a No, I figure out how I can get a Yes. I always ask people if I can come back to them and explore another avenue. They usually agree to this. It’s all about relationship building and when I’m with the men attending Mojo, it’s about building relationships with them too.

The frustrating bit of the job for me is that I don’t have any money beyond January for expanding nationally.

I have some commitment that what we have in place won’t change.

I have no staff as such, so I do everything myself, all my own administration and scheduling meetings as well as all the follow-up stuff. I’d love an office manager and someone who could help me develop the network.

A lot of work

At the moment, I’m negotiating with agencies in north Dublin to see if I could set up there. That’s a lot of work for one man, but there are amazing staff in the local projects.

I try to change how I view language and how I view things that happen. So instead of feeling frustrated, I try to see to challenges that need a solution. That’s what we try to do with the men as well.

A lot of the men are in really challenging situations as a result of mental issues and physical health problems. The impact of unemployment and losing their houses can lead to family breakdown. Instead of seeing catastrophe, we help the men build the tools to overcome their situations. I try to live by that.

I love my job - and that can be a problem. I don’t really see it as work. I find I have to be very clear about my own boundaries and I have to make sure I switch off at the end of the day. If I’m really stressed, I’ll spend a bit of time in the gym doing high intensity workouts. I go there nearly every day for 45 minutes. I have to get out of the house every day. Otherwise, I’d become isolated.

One of the high points of the job is seeing the men change. I don’t get to see them as much now but I mentor one of the men from the Mojo programme called Danny. He is now leading a Mojo men’s shed engaging with other men who are distressed. It’s amazing to see Danny thriving.

I know that we’re going to get to national level. We will get the money because we’re demonstrating phenomenal evidence for the programme. It has to continue.

Out of hours

I am learning how to play bridge which is a way of investing in my future. It’s a really social game. I do a bit of surfing too. I have a good social life. I like a pint of Guinness at the weekend.

I have a mix of friends, a lot of my friends don’t work in the social care sector. It’s good to have that balance.

I have an extended family and I spend time with my nieces and nephews. I don’t have any children myself.

I’m originally from Sligo and I go there some weekends. I try to take a couple of holidays a year.

Years ago, I was very interested in travel. Now, it’s harder to take time off. My partner, Dara Gallagher, is very supportive of what I do.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.