Three months ago our world changed forever with the death of my Mam, Aoife Ní Riain. She died by suicide, leaving family and friends devastated. We had Tipp training on the evening of the 29th September in preparation for the upcoming Munster Championship. Soon after the session I received the news and traveled to Belfast with my brother Ainle and our good friend Síomha, making the long journey from Tipperary to Belfast in stunned silence where we met our younger brother Naoise. The following days unfolded in a haze, letting people know, making funeral arrangements, all the while being carried along by the strong support of friends and family.
It’s like time has frozen since that day, slowly defrosting and letting through the reality bit by bit. Over the past three months we’ve been processing her death, while simultaneously doing our best to keep up with the day-to-day of life. Those first few weeks afterwards were heavy with questions, regrets, and sorrow, yet surprisingly I maintained the ability to function. Coming back to training with Tipperary and into the winter Championship gave me a focus and something to look forward to. The Christmas break has provided the space to absorb and reflect the loss, the lead up to her death, and how things could have been different.
It will be of no surprise when we look back at the Covid pandemic and see the knock on effect it has had on mental wellbeing. While the extent of the psychological consequences of the virus and social restrictions remains to be seen, a picture is beginning to emerge. A nine-month study in the UK reveals deepening distress among adults, with an in increase in hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and feelings. The ability to cope with the stress of the pandemic has been slowly in decline from April to November.
The pandemic is magnifying many societal and health care issues, compounding an already existing epidemic of loneliness. The stigma around loneliness means it is often hidden. We convince ourselves and others that we can go it alone, but nobody is immune from social disconnection. As we go into another lockdown and the Covid numbers come down, for many people those feelings of isolation, loneliness, stress and fear will increase. The social measures put in place are putting greater pressure on those whose mental health was already poorer or more precarious, with the potential to trigger a mental health crises. Someone who is not feeling good might withdraw even further, creating the conditions in which mental wellbeing can quickly spiral downwards.
Suicide is potentially preventable, however, and recognising the signs of suicide is one of the most important things we can do. This article on the Impact of Covid-19 on Suicide Rates outlines the emotional, verbal, and behavioural markers to look out for, which include feeling depressed, isolating from others, not communicating with friends and family, expressing that their life has no purpose, feeling stuck, or feeling like a burden. In such cases, feelings such as apathy, guilt, and shame may prevent someone from seeking help, so being attuned to the emotional state of friends and family may help us see how they are really doing. We all possess the capacity to help by paying attention to the wellbeing of people in our community. Through listening and being open and understanding, we can often get a sense of how someone is doing beneath the surface.
We all live as the main character in our own lives, and so it is easy to get caught up in our own world and drama. We can lose sight of the importance of fostering close and loving relationships, of the positive impact even small acts of kindness and compassion can have on others. The word Sonder, coined by John Koenig, describes ‘the profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it’. A nice reminder.
Our ‘small self’ likes to build walls in our minds, with fear as the building blocks. These walls can prevent us from seeing beyond a perceived disinterest or coldness in an interaction, from seeing someone as they really are. Our small self convinces us that our contribution is insignificant and that we are powerless to influence those around us. But we all have power in our ability to connect. Even in the current circumstances, we can pick up the phone, go for a walk, organize a video call. Showing genuine interest in others can have a profoundly positive impact, and even the smallest act of kindness and compassion can go a long way.
An example of such a gesture can be seen today in Tipperary, where the Tipp hurling team are calling out to over 40 homes around the county, a simple gesture that will put smiles on the faces of young and old alike. This won’t take away anyone’s problems, but it does demonstrate the power of community and embodies the spirit that will see us through this pandemic and hopefully to a more open, caring and compassionate society on the other side.