X Factor star Conor McGinty: I couldn't sing in a bar because I was crippled with anxiety
Former X Factor star Conor McGinty is warning young people to be wary of putting themselves forward for the talent show after he spiralled into depression following his elimination. He tells Leona O'Neill why he's now releasing a single to raise money for mental health charities
Falling from the heights of The X Factor left Northern Ireland singer Conor McGinty depressed, anxious, overweight and unable to leave his home. The 23-year-old Londonderry musician "reached his lowest ebb" in the year following his appearance in the competition in 2016.
Now, he wants to warn young people to be "very wary" of putting themselves forward for the contest.
The father-of-one was a regular feature on the ITV show before being eliminated in the chair challenge section.
His depression and anxiety after leaving the show got so bad that he was afraid to go on stage and eventually even leave his home.
A year later, he has launched a new single to raise awareness and money for mental health charities, with a song that is close to his heart.
"Two years ago, after I came down from the X Factor high, I got really down with depression and anxiety," he says.
"My career was at an all-time high then. It was going really well. I was on a high.
"I was on television shows, I was in talks with the Ellen DeGeneres Show to go on that, I was playing in front of 10,000 people at Wembley ... things were amazing.
"I was put out of X Factor just before the judges' house section. I had got through to the judge's chair challenge, down to the last 35 people.
"The show gave me a lot of airtime at the start with my audition and at the boot camp, and then also with the chair challenge - then I was just out.
"But still, things were going great. I did a lot of appearances, then it started to fizzle out and I was back to gigging in bars in my hometown. I still am - that is my job and I love it - but it levelled out so much that it put me into a downer. I was depressed.
"Obviously, when you have reached those heights, being in front of those types of audiences, it was hard. I had ambitions about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I wanted to be releasing original music, I wanted a fanbase and I wanted to tour, but it was all taken away from me and I hit rock bottom.
"I had been to the doctors a few times and talked it out. I told him that I was having these feelings, that I was down and out. My anxiety was through the roof, my skin was breaking out and I had red rashes on my face."
Conor says at his lowest ebb he didn't want to leave the house or work any more.
"I didn't want to go out or even leave my bed. I felt so uncomfortable on stage and I felt really uncomfortable within myself and how I was feeling," he says.
"I went from the highs of six or seven months previously, when I was playing at Wembley Arena in front of maybe 10,000 people, to not even wanting to sing in a local bar.
"I got to a stage where I couldn't sing in a bar because I was crippled with anxiety.
"I got so bad with depression I had gone up to 16st in weight. I put weight on by just being in the house and eating.
"Aisling (his partner) was pregnant at the time and was really sick, so she was in and out of hospital. All that played very much on my mind too."
Conor says the depression was rooted in his career and he completely beat himself up about it.
"Knowing that I have a drive and a passion and knowing that I can do it, with the right break. But I drove myself mad after X Factor, thinking it was never going to happen," he says.
"I thought that was the end of it, that was me back to pubs for the rest of my life - that is where the soul of it came from."
Conor warns other young people of the potential pitfalls of going on a talent show contest like The X Factor.
"In 2015, I got to the bootcamp stage. I was so young. I was in the Grove Hotel in Watford, England for four days - everything was great. When I was out, it was 'There's your suitcase, there's a taxi' and they put us up in a Travelodge," he says.
"I remember crying down the phone to my parents - all that effort and the hype that I went through was all for nothing. It's an amazing feeling when you are up there on stage, but when you are put out and you are put back down, it's hard to take.
"I don't want to be bitter about it, because, at the end, of the day it was a great platform and it really progressed me on. But I would warn other people that going on the show could have a detrimental impact on their mental health." Conor says he has many friends who went through the show and experienced the same thing.
"Mentally, you have to be prepared for it, because it can take its toll on you," he says.
"When they drop you, sometimes within a second's notice, it's bad. All the contacts you have built up within that scene, once you're gone, they're gone.
"It is hard, particularly for young people. There were people there I knew who were 15 or 16, and they were doing their first audition and being wiped out in front of 5,000 people. To have your dreams crushed like that, at that age, it's awful.
"The whole experience made me depressed. I would urge other people to be cautious before throwing themselves into it.
"I think I was too young. When I did it and got the success and the TV time out of it, I was only a teenager. Looking back on it now, I was too young to deal with the fallout when things don't go according to plan."
An X Factor spokesperson responded to the criticism by saying: "The duty of care to our contestants and those auditioning for the show is of the utmost importance to us.
"We take the welfare of our contestants very seriously and have measures in place to ensure they are supported at every stage of the process."
While Conor found it hard to open up about his mental health issues, he was glad he eventually did, because his family and friends rallied around him.
He started exercising, lost four stone, and the birth of his son, Daire, drastically changed his outlook.
He has now launched a new single called Miss You More Than Words Can Say, which was written in honour of Derry man Eamonn Johnston, who took his own life in 2007.
While Conor never felt suicidal, he believes he has an insight into the darkness that makes people think there is no way out.
"I was lucky. I had people around me - Aisling, my family and my friends - who helped me get out of that low point and back to where I am now - a place where I can use that experience to help others," he says.
"The reason I wanted to put the single out was that it opens your eyes up when you suffer from depression and anxiety.
"A lot of people say that suicide is a selfish thing, but when you are in a low place yourself, you can really understand how people can get to that place.
"You have to sympathise with people. I want to raise awareness and money for those charities who can help."
The song was originally written for a friend, Bebe Johnston, who lost her son, Eamonn, to suicide in the summer of 2007. She organised a number of charity concerts to mark the anniversary of the death and put together a CD 'From the heart', including the song by Mickey Coleman.
Conor says: "I approached her and the songwriters and asked if I could sing the song because I wanted to do something to raise awareness about mental health."
The song is aimed at addressing a problem that's getting worse every day, particularly in the north-west, Bebe says.
"My son passed away in July 2007," she says. "There were around 18 suicides in Derry that summer.
"Eamonn was former Mr Gay Derry and took part in Mr Gay UK. He had just finished making a DVD on mental health, depression and suicide when he took his own life. Two years later, songwriters Mickey Coleman and Plunkett McGartland penned Miss You More Than Words Can Say for me.
"I released a full album that year on Eamonn's second anniversary, and had a concert in the Millennium Forum called From The Heart. It ended with Eamonn's song, sending out the message, but here we are 10 years on and suicide is worse than ever.
"But we can't give up. Each little bit that is done to highlight the issue helps.
"I'm delighted that once again the song has come round to raise awareness and highlight this horrible plight."
- All proceeds from Conor's single will go to Aware NI and Foyle Search and Rescue. You can download the single at https://apple.co/2NGDlKL. Donate to the JustGiving page at https://bit.ly/2Dw7Zlp. If you, or anyone close to you, is affected by issues in this article, contact the Samaritans free on 11 6123 or Lifeline on 080 8808 8000