The City of Derry No. 8 is renowned for a hard-hitting, battling playing style which has won him plenty of admirers down the years at Judges Road but he about to tackle his toughest opponent yet - mental health.
The 25-years-old admits he has struggled with his own mental well-being at times in the past and has also seen first hand in his role as a tutor to adults with special needs the devastating consequences poor mental health can have on families and individuals, especially after 12 months of lockdown.
These experiences prompted Tiernan to seek out some conversations of his own, notably with City of Derry Director of Rugby, Paul O’Kane, about introducing mental health provisions at the local club, the result of which sees Thornton launch the club’s new ‘Convert The Stigma’ initiative in partnership with the Bogside and Brandywell Mental Health Forum.
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“Look, there has been a history of men especially - and especially sportsmen - maybe not talking about things but we have all watched Titanic and cried, we’ve all had our bad days or moments when things just aren’t going well, and that is especially true of the past 12 months,” explains Tiernan.
“The Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum have seen a 120% increase in demand for their mental health provisions over the last 12 months so there is a desperate need for support. There is also a desperate need for an environment in which people feel that they can talk about things; that they know there are avenues they can go down if needed.
“The ‘Convert the Stigma’ approach is to try and push things toward the services that are already exist but we also we want our own service in the sense that people feel comfortable coming to talk to us. A situation where they know the rugby club is always open for them.”
O’Kane enthusiastically endorsed his player’s proposal, putting Thornton in touch with Sinead Murphy from the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum with whom Tiernan is now co-ordinating a programme he hopes will not only provide support for anyone needing it, but also raise vital funds for local mental health services.
“Myself and Paul were about things like the loss of three nights training and the social contact and camaraderie people had lost because of that, as well as outside pressures from the pandemic and I thought it would be nice to get City of Derry linked with somebody locally. We thought we could set it up initially as a fundraiser but came up with the idea of the t-shirts, tops and other garments came about from there.”
Operating under the hashtag of ‘convert_the_stigma’ on social media platforms like Snapchat, Shopify and the website ‘convertthestigma.wordpress.com’, the new initiative brought on board local artist Ellen McCauley to design a range of T-shirts and hoodies which go on sale today and the proceeds of which will go directly toward the Bogside & Brandywell Health Forum’s Mental Health provisions.
“I want to raise awareness for everyone that if your are willing to go out on to a pitch and play in what is essentially an 80-minute battle every week, then why could you not talk to each other in the changing rooms for 10 minutes if something was on your mind or bothering you?” asked Tiernan.
“Personally, I have been lucky enough to overcome some things myself through using local services. They have shown me there is hope and an opportunity to carry on no matter how rough situations appear to get. Mental Health is a huge passion of mine because of that personal experience. In my work I’ve see families get torn apart by it, I’ve see people leaving us far too early and I wanted to do something about it.
“I have played rugby at City of Derry for more than 20 years though the minis, youth set-up and now the First XV and mental health is something I have battled with myself, as have people I know, so this is about highlighting the fact that you’re not alone if you feel that way and there is help available.
“Our whole message is that you’re never alone. For some, the biggest fear is going through these things alone, they feel they will be burdening people if they ask for help or talk to people but the services are there for that very reason. That’s what we want people to see.
“The T-shirts and hoodies will not only raise funds for mental health care, they will hopefully raise awareness of it too. The aim is that the tops will start an open discussion with people in the club and, hopefully, within the wider community. We want people to feel like they can contact each other, talk about things and maybe get that door open. It has been closed for a while, especially in environments like rugby clubs. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is a taboo subject but mental Health maybe hasn’t been addressed as much as it should have been.”
Tiernan said he is indebted to everyone who has helped get the initiative off the ground and said he was overwhelmed by the early reaction to what he was trying to do.
“So far the reaction from inside the club has been really positive,” he added, “I was very apprehensive about putting it out there because it is one of those subjects that are close to everyone’s hearts no matter how much bravado they put up and sports people can put up more than most.
“Everybody has had times when they are struggling or know someone who has been through tough times. Everyone has that link to it but the response has been fantastic and shows this is something people care about.
“I’m trying to put contacts in place with guys I know up and down the country, trying to branch out to other clubs. It will initially start here in Derry but we are very open to branching out, we want the message to reach as man as we possibly can.
“It will also draw attention to the fact the rugby club is there for people. If I walked into the middle of the Bogside or Brandywell and asked people could they tell me where the rugby club was, there would be many who wouldn’t know. It will help highlight the fact we are here.
“Since going to Judges Road we have lost some connection to the town and this can help highlight to people that we are still about, we are still trying to cross the divide. Mental Health problems don’t respect age, gender, background, ethnicity, religion or whatever so we are trying to the same, we want to counter balance that.
“We are going to have the ‘Shopify’ site set up and the plan is to sell the t-shirts, we have three different colours, and then we have hoodies as well. All proceeds are going to go to the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum to help with the provision of mental health services. They have 20 staff who are all mental health first aid trained so they know the ‘red flags’ to look out for when people are maybe falling toward needing some level of assistance.
“At the club, we want to try and help everyone understand how these ‘red flags’ can manifest themselves. There are so many people in Derry who have been fabulous actors for years without even realising it because they have managed to cover up how they were really feeling. We have all been there, but it crucial now that we try to tackle it and get talking.”
Find out more or see the full range at:
Website: convertthestigma.wordpress.comShopify: convertthestigma.myshopify.com
Email: [email protected]