Ireland rugby star Tommy Bowe on mental health fear that kept him awake at night
Ulster Rugby star Tommy Bowe has branded the number of people in Northern Ireland taking their own lives as "scary" and encouraged efforts to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and wellbeing.
For the past two years of available statistics, the country has had the highest suicide rate in the United Kingdom - 16.5 people per 100,000 in 2014 - with Bowe now lending his support to the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association's (IRUPA) Tackle Your Feelings drive.
The campaign has already led to Bowe's Irish international teammate Jack McGrath opening up about coping with the loss of his brother to suicide and Sevens player Hannah Tyrrell openly discussing her past troubles with an eating disorder.
Last night, Tackle Your Feelings held a panel discussion at Ulster's Kingspan Stadium home.
On what inspired him to become involved, Bowe said: "I think it's a very difficult thing for people to talk about if they think everything is coming down on top of them.
"It's very hard and to keep that to yourself must be extremely difficult. When you hear the statistics of the amount of people that do end up taking their own life, it's scary. It's a scary reality.
"Campaigns like Tackle Your Feelings, they're things that some people might take a huge amount from and, whether it's from what people like Hannah or Jack have said, it can be a way to hopefully just give those people a light at the end of the tunnel and show that, no matter what, there's someone else who is going through the same thing."
While the most recent statistics show that Northern Ireland's number of suicides has decreased, Bowe wants to see efforts to remove the stigma surrounding open and frank discussion on issues of mental wellbeing continue. "Maybe people in the north are slower to come forward and discuss things," he said. "It's a stigma and sometimes people don't want to be discussing their own innermost feelings. Whether it's the past we've had or what, it's an interesting point.
"People in Ulster and Northern Ireland... there have been huge changes in people's psyche here and it's something that hopefully is going to get better.
"The campaigns that we have, things like what we're doing here with Tackle Your Feelings, it's only going to improve things in the future."
With the campaign aimed at the importance of mental wellbeing in everyday life, Bowe was keen to stress how important it is to remember that anyone can find themselves struggling at one time or another.
"The message that IRUPA are trying to get out there is that it's not just people who have severe mental health problems who go through really dark times," he said.
"Tackling problems at an early stage and not letting them fester or become a crisis - that's what's so important."
Bowe has plenty of recent experience in overcoming his own adversity, admitting that there were times during his rehabilitation from a knee injury picked up with Ireland last October that made him think he may have played his last game of rugby.
"From being asked to come on board, I suppose it was to show that as a sportsperson, like anyone, you go through good days and bad days," he said.
"I've spent 12 months being injured and at times you question whether you'll ever get back on the pitch.
"I chat to Stephen Ferris and Felix Jones (former teammates who were forced to retire) about when you're told that it's not going to get any better and that's the fear. That's what keeps you up at night.
"Having coping mechanisms in that situation and people that you trust is so important.
"You have great days and then you can hit the ground with a bang. It's something you deal with a lot in rugby.
"Touch wood, I'm back now, though. I feel as good as new and I'll push it on."
For more information on IRUPA's campaign, visit the website at www.tackleyourfeelings.com