‘We want to bring mental health into everyday conversation’

Róisín Upton, Emma Langford and Mayor Daniel Butler to place roses at River Shannon

Thirty white roses will be placed on the River Shannon on Friday, October 8th, by Ireland women's hockey Olympian Róisín Upton, singer Emma Langford and the Mayor of Limerick Daniel Butler to commemorate the 294 lives lost in Limerick city to Covid-19.

Upton, Langford and Butler will be on board the Ilen, the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships, as it arrives from the Shannon Estuary into Limerick city on Friday evening to mark the beginning of Limerick Mental Health Week. Buildings across the city will also be lit up in green “to shine a light on mental health”.

The city in the southwest has the highest suicide rate in the country and the highest number of deaths by suicide among young men. And as Ireland emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, Limerick Mental Health Association has been busier than ever, offering support to people dealing with stress and trauma.

“We want to bring mental health into everyday conversation because we believe that looking after your mental health is just as important as looking after your physical health,” says Dr Lisa O’Rourke Scott, chairwoman of the association.

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Upton, who has come on board as an ambassador for Limerick Mental Health Week for the first time this year, says that the Covid-19 pandemic had a big impact on everyone. She is particularly conscious about how young people feel they have lost 18 months of their lives.

"Lots of young people struggled during the Covid-19 lockdowns and it's important for young people to know that it's okay not to be okay," says Upton. Personally, her own schedule was upended by the pandemic in that she was unable to travel to Dublin three times a week to train with the Ireland hockey team in advance of the Tokyo Olympics – which were then postponed because of the pandemic.

“First, we didn’t even know if the Olympics were going to be cancelled altogether. We were so incredibly grateful when it happened. Getting on that plane was such a relief and it was all so safe and secure when we got there. Only when we look back do we realise how difficult it was to not have our families there,” says Upton.

The Tokyo Olympics was the first time that the Ireland women's hockey squad qualified for the Olympic Games since women's hockey was added in 1980. And although the team won their first match against South Africa, with Upton scoring the first goal, they lost to Britain, the defending champions in their final pool game. The team is now back in training for their Hockey World Cup qualifier game in Italy later this month.

Upton says she finds keeping fit helps her mental health but the key is to find something you enjoy doing. “Everyone was walking during Covid and it was good to be out in nature but it’s about building up habits into your life whether it’s going to a class, going for a walk with a friend or doing a team sport.”

During the pandemic, she says she realised how important it was to be more present in what she did. "I had a five-year plan and when Covid hit, that all stopped and my plans were put back a year when the Olympics were postponed. If that hadn't happened, I'd be back teaching now," says Upton who has a primary degree in psychology from the University of Connecticut and a Master's in education from Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.

The Covid-19 restrictions made her change her focus. “I realised that it was important to have small things to look forward to each week and to enjoy the journey and planning of these smaller things,” she explains. So meeting a friend locally, following online tutorials to cook something, spending time in nature, doing bikram yoga and journaling all became important ways to keep herself mentally and physically well.

As Ireland reopened, she found a new rhythm. “I don’t think we will ever take for granted again what it’s like to be in a cafe with friends,” says Upton who is moving to Dublin to look for her first job as a primary school teacher.

See limerickmentalhealth.ie for details of public talks, workshops, yoga sessions and other events during Limerick Mental Health Week which runs from October 8th-15th. World Mental Health Day is on October 10th