By Liam Mackey
Former Cork City player Brian Lenihan has spoken in depth about the mental health problems which resulted in his retirement from football last year.
The 24-year-old was one of the hottest prospects in the Irish game, breaking into the City first-team in 2014 before securing a transfer to Hull City and a call-up to the senior Irish squad.
When, last April, he announced that he was prematurely retiring from professional football on medical advice, it was widely assumed that the decision was due to complications arising from a succession of injuries.
But, in June, in an interview with Trevor Welch, he revealed that mental illness, which had brought him to the brink of suicide, was the real reason for his retirement.
Now, in the hope that he can help others who continue to suffer in silence, Brian has spoken in more detail both about his harrowing experience and his ongoing recovery in the latest edition of the ‘Player’s Chair’ on the Second Captains World Service podcast.
“It’s easy to look back now and say why didn’t you ask for help but I think that’s the most dangerous part of the disease,” he tells host Richie Sadlier.
“Sometimes it won’t let you ask for help because your thoughts are so logical, so consuming, so dark and so deep.
“I’m not sure I should say this but I feel that I should, just to give an example.
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“So that’s what it can get like if you don’t speak out or ask for help or you’re not lucky enough for someone to notice it and help. It can be very, very dangerous.
“I talk about the shame and embarrassment of what I did but some days if I’m in a good place I look back and say, ‘how can you be ashamed of something that nearly killed you?’
“If someone was dying of cancer and they beat it, they wouldn’t be ashamed to speak about that, about an illness that nearly killed them.”
Asked if he can describe what it is like to have a suicidal mind, he says: “It’s quite a difficult thing to explain but it’s all-consuming, that’s what I would say.
The fact that “absolutely nobody” would have been aware of what he was going through is, he suggests, “the most dangerous thing about mental health and suicidal thoughts.
“If you look at families who have lost people to suicide they will say that person had a normal day the day they did that.
“Which is strange but it’s so true. Because I was acting completely normal and then when I knew I was safe to think about it, say for example at night, I couldn’t really sleep because my mind was working in overdrive.
“It’s draining, it’s tiring, it’s really difficult and I think the tiredness is eventually the thing that drives you to do it, I believe.”
He goes on to describe how he had planned the circumstances of his suicide.
“Before training every morning I would drive to the swimming pool (in Hull) and it’s quite a dangerous, windy road to get to.
“That was my free ticket without shame, if that makes sense. I wanted it to be a tragic incident. I wouldn’t say ‘stage’ it but have an excuse, let there be some bit of doubt.
“And that’s how bad it was at that time. My mind was telling me, ‘oh, look at this good professional, he’s injured, he’s going to the swimming pool before training’ and then that’s when you do it. And I couldn’t physically do it, thank God.”
Instead, he survived to embark on the road to recovery, his treatment including 12 challenging but ultimately valuable weeks in The Priory — “at the beginning all I did was cry” — and 12 sessions of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).
“The reason why most people do ECT is because they’re medication-resistant and, at the time, the people looking after me felt I wasn’t progressing in the way I should have been so they sent me for ECT,” he explains.
“And it was quite scary. Basically, you fast from 12 o’clock at night, you do a mental assessment and then you go the hospital in a taxi with a carer or a nurse.
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“That’s supposed to be, kind of, like a reset button because I think scientists say it releases chemicals in your brain. So I had that twice a week and I had 12 sessions of it. And it’s not as barbaric as people believe it is from the movies, where it’s dramatised. It’s so advanced now.
“I did suffer memory loss (the most common side effect) from it so I don’t remember certain people from the hospital and I don’t remember certain periods of time.
“If my parents bring up certain people, I don’t know who they are. So that is a bit strange but it’s a small price to pay for the benefit.”
Brian Lenihan describes the loss of his football career as having left “a gaping hole in my life”. But he says that he has “accepted the fact that if I was to go back into professional football I could put myself at risk and I don’t want to do that.
“So I’ve kind of accepted that but I don’t think I’ve fully faced up to it. Not yet. But I presume I will.”
While he needs to stay alert to what he calls risk factors, Brian reports that he is in “a good place” now and pays warm tribute to his girlfriend, family and close friends for their unstinting love and support.
Currently, he continues to take medication and receive professional help, the latter with a view to “retraining” himself for a return to the workplace.
“There’s a potential job coming up and I want to be ready for that because I don’t want to let people down and I feel I have a lot to give in that area,” he says, without identifying the position.
“I can help people and be good at that job. Because I’m not really good at anything at the moment. But that’s just timing. That’s just the way it is at the moment and I have to accept that. But I know I’m going to get better. I suppose I had to come to the realisation that I am living with an illness. It may be invisible, but it’s there.”
In conclusion, Sadlier asks Lenihan what he would most want people to take away from hearing him speak so candidly.
“Just to look after themselves and look after family and friends,” he replies.
“I don’t want anyone to take anything away from this interview with regards to me or feel sorry for me or anything like that because I’m the luckiest man in the world.
“I don’t want any pity. But it would be a real shame if I didn’t turn my experience into something good.
“I do believe this subject is very important and I don’t want anybody to make the same mistakes that I did.”
If you or someone you know is affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can get help by phoning the free Pieta House 24-hour suicide helpline on 1800 247 247 or, alternatively, by phoning the Samaritans at Freephone 116123.