Ireland’s biggest advocates for mental health in sport or the entertainment industry

According to Mental Health Ireland has one of the highest rates (3/36 countries) of mental health illness in Europe with 18.5% of the Irish population recorded as having a mental health illness such as anxiety, bipolar disorder or depression. There is still such a stigma around these conditions that many people often suffer in silence. However, a number of people in sport or the entertainment industry have used their platform to promote mental health issues and encourage people to speak out. Some of these are:

Blindboy Boatclub – Musician, Author, Presenter, Podcaster and Twitch star

Blindboy is one of Ireland’s highest profile mental health advocates and entertainers. Best known for appearing in public with a plastic bag on his head to protect anonymity. Blindboy uses his podcast to delve into psychological theory and gives examples of his own mental health struggles around anxiety and agoraphobia. 

In the past he’s interviewed the likes of PJ Gallagher, Dr Sharon Lambert on trauma and Dr.Nicola Fox Hamilton a cyberpsychologist on how social media is affecting our mental health. He has also discussed how mental health plan’s could be beneficial to anyone with mental health issues, given guided meditations or discussed how his recent diagnosis of autism, coupled with poor mental health during lockdown, has made him decide to go back to therapy. With 52 million downloads, it’s one of the most popular podcasts in Ireland and abroad.

Niall “Bressie” Breslin – Entrepreneur, Musician, author and Presenter

Singer, TV presenter, Podcaster, Author, former GAA player and rugby player Bressie (as he is better known) is one of the leading voices on anxiety disorders and mental health issues in the workplace in Ireland. Having battled with anxiety disorders from his mid-teens, he wrote a book in 2015 called ‘Me and My Mate Jeffrey’ which details his relationship with his anxiety (which he calls Jeffery). Having had a high profile anxiety attack while hosting ‘The Voice’ on RTE in 2012, Bressie went on to co-found the not-for-profit organisation A Lust for Life. Their mission is to ‘Support, inspire and empower people to take care of their own minds, change societal norms around mental health, humanising the conversation, change societal infrastructure, so that we always catch people when they fall’. This has led to numerous social entrepreneurship awards including the prestigious Social Entrepreneur Ireland Impact award, The Social Innovation Fund and the Google Impact Award.

Mary Coughlan – Singer

Having been hospitalised for mental health issues as a teenager, the multi-award winning singer has been very open about her struggles with depression, which led to a long battle with alcohol and drugs such as cocaine. Speaking on the Tommy Tiernan show, she said “I was hospitalised 32 times in the space of two year for alcoholism”. Now twice divorced, Mary has been sober for 28 years.  She is now an ambassador for the Rutland Centre which treats people for alcohol and drug dependency.

Keith Earls – International Rugby player

One of Ireland’s greatest wingers Keith has amassed nearly 200 appearances for Munster and over 100 international caps for Ireland scoring 35 tries for Ireland in the process. In October 2021 Keith released his autobiography and went on the Late Late Show to discuss his Bipolar Disorder diagnosis

Keith described having his first panic attack as a twelve year old, but he was then diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013. He calls his alter-ego Hank and speaking to The Guardian he said “Hank was always there but he really came out after that tour. Rugby was my thing to get away from life. But after the Lions, particularly that first game [where he was traumatised by self-doubt], Hank started to take over, before explaining to the Irish Independent “I explained everything to him, he was brilliant. I went down to see a guy in Cork, a psychiatrist, and he diagnosed me with bipolar II. There is obviously bipolar I as well, but bipolar II is probably the better out of the two to get. I was delighted to get the diagnosis; I was genuinely losing my mind.” After the book was released Keith was shocked by the reaction to it, with many people opening up to him about similar mental health issues they have.

Caroline Foran – Presenter, Author and Podcaster

Best selling author and highly successful podcaster of a podcast called ‘Owning it, the anxiety podcast’  Caroline’s books and podcast details her own struggles with anxiety and some of the tools and strategies that she and others have used to help reduce some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression they have felt. By opening up, and interviewing other high profile people within the media, Caroline hopes that others can reduce the stigma of anxiety and depression and seek help in their own life.

Mick Finnegan – Entrepreneur, coach and consultant

Mick is a native of Dublin’s inner-city who is an experienced health and social care professional. He has worked in various inpatient and assertive outreach roles across the UK. Mick is an expert by lived experience and has a passion for working with disadvantaged and marginalized groups. More recently, he worked in a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit in the NHS in Northern Ireland. Mick has also worked in partnership with Health Education England and NHS improvement as a member of their expert referencing group which developed a new competency framework for lived experience roles within the NHS. This now forms part of their national programme to develop new roles, and expand others, to transform the mental health workforce in England. He lives to pass on his story of hope and recovery, to help others avoid the pitfalls he fell into. He is a National Advisor to London’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, working with the National Collaboration Centre for Mental Health. Mick is now back living in Dublin and studying at Trinity College Dublin where he’s part of the leadership team with the ability co-op. Which is a co-operative movement of students at Trinity College Dublin who are committed towards radical inclusion.

PJ Gallagher – Comedian, TV, podcast and radio host

PJ has had a hugely successful career in the entertainment industry. In 2021, PJ had what he described as a breakdown and entered St. Patrick’s Hospital after he had become a “threat to himself” 

The Irish Independent reported “he was diagnosed with depressive anxiety and recurrent depressive disorders. He added that the diagnosis was news to me because I suppose I had bouts of it before, but this is something that no matter how long I’ve been around doing stand-up or radio, I’ve never spoken about it or said it to anybody ever. I’ve always just kept it as my business”. Before going on to say “As bad as I was before, it was this unbelievable fear, unbearable, inescapable fear came over me. All I thought for the next two months was, ‘I don’t want to be alive” before encouraging people to speak out saying ““I know it’s going to sound insane to anyone that’s depressed and I know it sounds impossible, but give yourself the chance, talk to your friends, tell everybody around you that you’re not feeling well, because you will get help. I know it sounds ridiculous when you’re in it, but there is a way out.“ 

Una Healy – Singer and presenter

Having first rose to fame joining the British Pop group The Saturdays, The group had 10 top 10 hits and 4 top 10 albums in the space of 7 years. After the band went on hiatus in 2014, Una released her solo work, while also appearing on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of here and began her presenting career as well. Since then she has released several albums and continued to grow her presenting career, presenting programs on RTE such as co-presenting The Heart of Saturday Night.

Una relieved in 2018 that she struggled with postpartum depression following the birth of her second child. The Irish Independent reported “The depression is something that happens quite slowly. It is hard to describe because every individual is different. “You’re in this dense fog. Other people got out of it but I went thicker and thicker into the fog. She admits that she went back to work too quickly and put too much pressure on herself to be a good mother. After going to her doctor she was diagnosed with PND and prescribed medication.

Marian Keyes – Author

Multi-award winning author and journalist Marian, who is a recovering alcoholic, told Ryan Turbiry on ‘The Late Late Show; “I think depression is an illness just as alcoholism is an illness…People, when they hear you had a bout of really bad depression, they wonder what happened? what brought it about? Sometimes for some people, something does happen to trigger it. But…nothing terrible happened to me to trigger it. I went into a psychiatric hospital, I tried all kinds of antidepressants known to man, meditation, mindfulness, CBT, exercise, going on a holiday, hobbies, reading, not leaving the house – everything.” Keyes said her depression went away as quickly as it came, after nearly five years.

Sinéad O’Connor – Singer and advocate

One of Ireland’s most successful singers, growing up Sinéad was caught shoplifting and was truant from school. She was sent to a Magdalene Asylum for eighteen months. The time spent in this institution was fraught with abuse. In 2007 Sinéad announced she had been diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder and revealed she had attempted sucide in 1999. In 2017 Sinéad was found safe and well after an alarming post on social media where Sinéad threatened suicide because of the custody battle with her children. After this she said “absolutely nobody in my life except my doctor, my psychiatrist, the sweetest man on Earth who says I’m his hero knows what I’m going through. That’s about the only thing keeping me alive at the moment” In 2020 Sinéad appeared on the Tommy Tiernan show on RTE and said that she suffers from agoraphobia which has hindered her relationships in the past.

Donie O’Sullivan – CNN Reporter

The breakout Irish start of 2021 so far, Donnie was the CNN reporter at the insurrection in the Capitol Building Riots in Washington D.C. on January 6th 2021. Originally from county Kerry Donnie opened up to the Irish Times in February 2021, about how his anxiety attacks that began when he was in college lead to mental health issues saying “I would say that the chaos that I have had in the past in my mind is far more terrifying than anything I have encountered, even at the riot that day at the Capitol. The most terrifying position I have been in in my life has been in my own mind in the grips of anxiety and depression. I want to send the message that you can do this stuff but you need to get help. A lot of guys at home don’t get help. They live on with it, in torture. I don’t know how they could do that because it is just not worth it. There is help out there. There really is. ”  

Brent Pope – TV analyst, rugby coach and entrepreneur

Born in New Zealand, Brent was a New Zealand representative rugby player who came to Ireland in 1991 to play rugby, he then went onto to a very successful coaching career with St. Mary’s Clontarf and Leinster A, winning 3 AIL titles and 2 Leinster senior cups in the process. It was in TV that Brent became known as one of the best analysts in rugby in Ireland, alongside George Hook and Tom McGurk for over 25 years. He then used his profile from TV exposure to write a series of children’s books for charity, an award winning autobiography entitled If You Really Knew Me, and a mental health/Wellness book entitled ‘Win’ He even has his own clothing line, POPE Shirts and shoes. He was a curator of Outside Art Gallery in Dublin, where he supported artists from untraditional areas.

 Brent has also been involved in several philanthropic works such as Habitat for Humanity, Cycle Against Suicide and has previously been an ambassador for Rehab’s People of the Year Awards. He is a wellness ambassador for Cornmarket, and has worked as a mental health advocate for nearly all of Ireland’s mental health charities over the years.

However, Brent is also known for his mental health advocacy. He speaks openly about the panic attacks, anxiety and depression he has had since he was a teenager. He told the Irish Sunday Mirror: “It’s become something that I’ve become more tolerant about, I had years of shame and guilt around anxiety issues that I couldn’t really explain until later in life. But I go all around the country now talking to people who hopefully get a lot out of those talks.” He went back to college to qualify as a psychotherapist, and in his own words, “just to bring the science to add to his life experience.” Brent recently co-founded the Elephant in The Room project, where he has a dream of creating an international movement around greater mental health understanding, a project that combines his passion for talking mental health and art.  “I am asking every organisation, business & individual in Ireland to help raise mental health awareness, while at the same time supporting charities that are literally saving lives. Let’s not be ashamed to address the “Elephant in the Room” anymore, and together we will start the conversation on mental health from the school room to the board room.” Over the next few years Brent is hoping that his herd of elephants will raise hundreds of thousands for various charities involved in mental health as well as create a safe and supportive environment for generations to come.

Richie Sadlier – RTE soccer analyst, podcaster, psychotherapist and author

A star player in The Republic of Ireland’s underage youth set up in the 90’s Richie was signed by Millwall at a young age. However, injuries plagued his footballing career and he was told he would have to retire from the game aged just 24. After this Richie contemplated taking his own life, telling the Second Captains Podcast“ did get to a place. The worst it got for me… I retired in the first week of September. By December, I had contacted a solicitor. I had started writing a will. I lived in a house with a swimming pool in the back yard. My plan was to jump in there and not get out…My mother suggested therapy when she knew something was up. She gave me the name of someone who worked in London and I took it from there. It went from being something I would never consider to something I felt I had to do.” I wondered whether a job like hers would be the job for me someday. I thought I’d like it, but doubted whether I’d be taken seriously given my former career. It took me another seven years to do something about it but now I’m a practising therapist myself.”

Richie became a board member of St Patrick’s Athletic FC, eventually becoming chairman of the board and a pundit on RTE football, Second Captains Podcast and his own column in Irish newspapers.  Richie runs his own private practice specialising in adolescent physiotherapists, while also providing mental-health related modules in secondary schools in Ireland. He also wrote a book entitled ‘Lets Talk: Relationship, Sexual Health and Intimacy’ Drawing on his experience of working closely with teenage boys, topics include an overview of human sexuality; relationships and dating; consent; how to handle sexting, breakups and trust issues; porn vs real-life intimacy; and knowing how to tell the difference between attraction, infatuation and love.

Clare Shine – International footballer

Growing up in Cork, Claire was a prodigious soccer player and Camogie player Clare had a natural talent for sports from an early age. Clare decided to focus on soccer, signing for Cork City FC before moving to Raheny United. Clare then signed for Glasgow City in 2015, while gaining 7 caps for Ireland in the process.

It was during her time with Glasgow City that Clare started to open up about her mental health struggles. Telling “I broke my leg. I was coming back from that and it was the first time that I had actually spent time on my own properly. That was when things started to get bad… had my first panic attack in and around all of that. Nineteen at the time, Shine turned to her brother. She told him how she was feeling, and about some of the thoughts she was experiencing. He reached out to Pieta House, the national charity helping people in situations of suicidal distress and self-harm, and Shine was first admitted in January 2015.”

After 12 weeks of therapy, Clare was back thriving on the football pitch “Six months later, I just found myself back in the same position,” she continues. “That went on for another year. I went back to Pieta House. Alcohol, she says, was a coping mechanism. It gave her “a bit of life” and “the confidence that I was looking for”.

After stepping away from her football career, family and friends, Clare openly admits to drinking far too heavily and then “20 October 2018 was when I tried to commit suicide. That was a huge turning point for me. Obviously, I have seen the effects that it has had on a lot of people in my life.” After entering rehab for her alcoholism, Clare slowly returned to her family and friends, before beginning her football career again, first with Cork and now with Glasgow City again. 

Alan Quinlan – retired rugby player and TV analyst

During his fifteen years of rugby playing career, Alan played 212 times for Munster, scoring 33 tries and 27 times for Ireland, scoring 6 tries. During the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final between Leinster and Munster in Alan fingers made contact with the eye area of Leinster’s Leo Cullen. Alan was later cited for an eye gouge. He was picked for the British and Irish Lions Tour, however his name was withdrawn as he was given a 12 week suspension for the incident. While serialising Alan’s book ‘Red Blooded’ The Irish Indepedent he said “Every day seemed to go on and on. I lost a lot of motivation for things that would have excited me before. In my playing days, I had this intense desire to achieve. They say anxious, nervous people get a buzz out of being under pressure. It’s like there is a washing machine going around in my head and it’s very hard to switch that off.” Having complicated suicide Alan knew something had to change. He spoke to his GP and began seeing a psychotherapist, and slowly things improved. Alan now raises awareness of mental health to corporate companies and sports teams and tried to break the stigma particularly trying to reach men with the message “it’s ok to ask for help.”

Ashling Thomspon – Camogie All Ireland Winner

Ashling’s mum was a founding member of Milford Camogie Club. Aishling started playing with them when she was 6 years old. She went on to win 3 Club All Irelands with Milford and 4 All Irelands Camogie titles with Cork. She has spoken extensively about her mental health. Aisling was in a car accident in 2009 that caused severe neck pain and result in a period of depression. In 2012 Aishling’s then boyfriend died by suicide. Since then she has spoken publicly about Mental Health saying to the Irish Independent “I Just continue to play sport. Continue to focus my mind on something else. Continue to do things for different charities, like Cycle Against Suicide for Pieta House, or Headstrong” 

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