Niall Donohue story shows how little we know about suicide
We are more in talking open about depression – but not suicide. That must change
Galway’s Conor Whelan celebrates after the All-Ireland final win with a Galway flag bearing Niall’s image. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Writing about the Galway hurler Niall Donohue last week, the one thought that kept recurring was just how little we know about suicide. As a society it feels like we know – or are getting to know – more and more about depression. It is a positive truth that over the past decade or so, the stigma around mental health issues has been peeled away, layer by layer.
Sport has played its part in that, maybe even more so than any other realm of society on which a spotlight is constantly shining. How many politicians do you ever hear talking about their battles with depression? Or musicians? Actors? Captains of industry? Compared with sportspeople who are in the public eye, those numbers must be quite small, even though presumably the rates of mental health issues are more or less consistent across society.
Yet in sport, the player or athlete who has come out the other side of a battle with depression is almost a well-worn trope at this stage. It would be a rare month that passed over the course of a calendar year without a big interview somewhere from a sportsperson talking about depression.
Nicole Owens, the Dublin footballer, was almost casual in her mention of it during the terrific documentary Blue Sisters last week. It was something she struggled with but it was something she was open about. It was something her teammates knew about and supported her through.
She didn’t dismiss it or paint it as no big deal – you could tell how big a deal it was by the way it caught in her throat when she talked about it. But it was a problem that she had dealt with, and the way she talked about it showed that, to some extent, depression has been normalised in society. Knowledge does that. Education does that. Talking about it does that.
A vast chasm
Clearly, you would never want suicide to be normalised. But it is striking that for two phenomena that are so closely linked, there is a vast chasm between what we understand and talk about in relation to one compared with the other. Maybe we feel that by talking about depression, we are de facto talking about suicide. Or that by talking about depression, we save ourselves the need to get too deep into what causes a sufferer to take that drastic, unrecoverable step.
There is, of course, a brutally simple explanation, too. People who suffer from depression can talk about it; people who die by suicide cannot. We can never really know what it was that convinced them that walking out of life was the most attractive option open to them.
As a result, the families and friends and teammates left behind can only feel around for answers, as though they’ve walked into a dark room where the light switch isn’t fixed to the wall inside the door. If they hit on it, they do so by accident. That uncertainty is, in itself, a barrier to talking. When there are so many more questions than answers, the conversation can peter out quickly enough.
David Burke, the Galway captain, was instrumental in setting up the article that ran in The Irish Times on Saturday. In his day job, he is a secondary school teacher, so he is dealing with the developing psyches of young people on a daily basis. Because of that and because of what happened to Niall Donohue, who he had known and played beside since under-14s, he comes to this whole area with a lot of thought and nuance. It means he can feel comfortable asking uncomfortable questions.
“It’s hard to know if talking about it will help, you know?” he said at one point. “I went to a thing a couple of weeks after [Niall’s death] happened, I think it was the following January. It was a GPA conference, and that was one of the main things we were talking about – how can we help this situation? And they’ve done a lot of work ever since. But it’s not just GAA players – it’s happened in every pocket of the country.
“You just wonder are we doing the right thing. In five years’ time, if this is all still happening, you wonder are you helping at all. One of the things I was saying that day was if by talking about it, you’re maybe giving people ideas. I understand the need to sit down with people and to talk to them. But you’d wonder.”
Sitting beside him, Donohue’s club chairman, Justin Fahey, accepted that there’s no right answer that we know of. But his instinct, born of bitter experience, is to keep talking. Otherwise, you’re doing nothing. We’ve done that for long enough.
“Whether to talk about the enigma of suicide or not, it’s a difficult one. People would be saying to you, ‘Should we not just stay quiet about it and let it go away?’ And you don’t know what the right thing is to do. But I think speaking about it and talking about it is important. Nially’s death has brought it to a whole new level in our world. It’s just such a pity it had to be our lad that brought it to that level. But if we can only save one life by talking about it, then we have to.” That’s the bottom line, really. Regardless of how little we know.