Calls to GAA players counselling service triple as more admit mental health issues

The willingness of prominent sports figures such as Conor Cusack to speak of depression has led to spike in calls

Offaly footballer Niall McNamee: has spoken about his gambling. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Offaly footballer Niall McNamee: has spoken about his gambling. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


The number of senior inter-county GAA players accessing a confidential counselling service has tripled this year, a conference will hear today.

The Gaelic Players Association (GPA) counselling service is expected to deal with 80 senior footballers and hurlers this year. The same service dealt with 27 players last year.

The spike in usage is being attributed to the greater willingness of sports people to talk about mental health issues.

In the past year Cavan goalkeeper Alan O’Meara has spoken publicly about depression and suicidal thoughts, Offaly footballer Niall McNamee about his gambling and former Cork hurler Conor Cusack about depression and suicide.

Depression, gambling and bereavement are the most common reasons for players accessing the GPA counselling service, according to Dr Niall Muldoon, a clinical psychologist and counsellor.

He will present a paper today about the service at the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) annual conference in Sligo, along with the co-ordinator of the GPA counselling service Colm Regan.

The GPA service was set up in 2010 and is free to all inter-county players. It provides a team of 10 psychologists and a confidential helpline.

Dr Muldoon described the profile of GAA players as amounting to a “triple whammy” when it came to vulnerability to mental illness. They were male, mostly under 25 and from a rural area.

Success on the playing pitch often led to unrealistic expectations that they would have success elsewhere in life.

“Because you are successful in a high-profile area in sport, it is expected that you can cope with everything else and that’s a tough scenario for anybody who finds themselves vulnerable,” he said.

In addition, many were subject to intense highs and lows and much of their self-esteem was wrapped up in their performances on the pitch. “If sport is your only identity and something goes wrong within your career, it makes it even more difficult.”

Dr Muldoon described gambling as a “huge problem across sport” as players no longer had alcohol as the release valve that it used to be.

Both the former Armagh footballer Oisín McConville and McNamee have gone public on the problem.

The GPA confidential helpline can be accessed at 1800-201346 and in the North on 0808-2345183.