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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 15°C
Shutterstock/matimix Sports can help some people to open up about their mental health.
Lynn Ruane Sport is part of the solution to address young men's mental health
Services such as the Breakthrough Programme in West Dublin can be a lifesaver for young men.

WHEN FORMER PROFESSIONAL player Eric Cantona finished his acceptance speech for the UEFA President’s Award last week with the words ‘I love football’, I had a feeling of joy in my heart.

I found myself nodding and responding with – “You are right Eric, sport can help save us”. Sport can be a very positive equaliser and part of the solution to many young men’s sense of isolation and loneliness.  

It reminded me of an awards night I recently attended at Tallaght South Dublin County Council for the participants of the Breakthrough Programme. This programme was established at the Beacon of Light Counselling Service in Clondalkin, spearheaded by Geoffrey McCarthy as a unique response to the challenges facing young men in West Dublin aged between 18 and 30.

The people behind this initiative had observed, like many others, that young men from working class communities are some of the highest at risk of suicide and they find it really hard to ask for help when they are struggling with their mental health.

The programme thought that sport might be a way to get these men to engage in support. They have found that the combination of sport and one-to-one psychotherapy has the potential to change the lives of young men by positively supporting their mental health.

This has been run several times with Mixed Marshall Arts (MMA), each time showing that sport can provide an acceptable doorway to psychotherapy for young at-risk males. It can provide them with a physical release and space to explore personal issues.

In the first year of the scheme, Beacon of Light collaborated with Straight Blast Gym (MMA). Based on its huge success, the sporting element was extended to reach a wider group of males.

The latest version of the programme saw football take centre stage due to a new collaboration with the FAI and Shamrock Football Club.   

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan evaluated the effectiveness of the programme and the findings were very positive.

This evaluation found that the programme provided what could be considered a masculine gateway to mental health services by making sport the central feature. This allowed males to participate without feeling the stigma often associated with asking for help.

Through exercising on a regular basis and attending therapy, those who had reported depression, addiction and other difficulties all reported feeling more motivated, confident and better in themselves.

The ‘sport and talk’ approach offered them something more holistic than simple therapy or popping to the gym. 

Research has shown for a long time that sport can have a positive impact on our mental health. Despite this, there are not many initiatives that bring together sport and other mental health interventions in this way.

From reading the research on the Breakthrough Programme, and from meeting the young men at the awards ceremony, it is clear that this creative and innovative approach is effective.

Rekindling the love of sport for young men is a way to address their mental health needs.  We also see this in initiatives like the Irish Street Leagues.


When discussing her findings, Dr O’Sullivan said research consistently shows that men are less likely to seek help when facing psychological distress.

She added that young men themselves said that there were no services for men in their communities. The Breakthrough Programme is helping these young men to live and feel better. 

The downside comes when we begin to consider how these initiatives can be sustained when they have no targeted funding.

Despite a growing awareness of the need for alternative approaches for young men, these programmes have no long-term funding. 

Throughout the interviews conducted as part of the evaluation, a number of challenges emerged. These included social isolation, an absence of role models, gender norms and a lack of gender-aware services.

Seeking help facilitated through sport was perceived by the young men as an acceptable activity in which males could participate.

Some of the barriers expressed in the research were social, financial and personal challenges which stopped them from seeking help.

One participant said that sitting at home “isolating” himself was when his mental health issues began. Finance was identified as a major contributor to the mental health difficulties of many men.

One man said that being from a socially disadvantaged background compounded with his mental health difficulties due to the cost of seeking help.  

That is why community-based programmes require state support to continue to reach young men, one of the most difficult groups to reach in society.

The sportsmanship, humanity and working relationship between the staff, the participants and FAI sports coaches at the awards ceremony gave me the same joy in my heart I felt hearing Eric Cantona’s line.

Mainly because what precluded that line and the awards ceremony was not only passion, belief and hard work, but also a lot of pain. 

September is National Recovery Month. The 2019 Recovery Walk will take place in Dublin on 14 September to show that recovery is possible and to mark the achievements of those in recovery. Find out more details here.

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