Belfast Telegraph

Ex-rugby coach whose suicide bid made headlines to give Belfast talk on mental health

Dubliner once charged for trying to take his own life now promotes mental health awareness after founding charity

By Louise Convery

A Dublin-born former rugby coach who was once prosecuted for attempting suicide at a London train track is set to give a talk in Belfast with the charity he founded to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health.

Michael Finnegan, 33, from State of Mind Rugby Union has turned to sport as a way to reach people about their mental health following his time working as a community rugby coach with London Irish and at Saracens.

It was also in London that Mick experienced a breakdown and the beginning of his battle with mental health - one that became very public due to circumstances beyond his control.

“I didn’t realise I had a mental health issue until 2009 when I ended up on a bridge in London and I was convinced I wanted to die,” he said.

“It just came out of the blue, I didn't realise I had a problem, and then that happened and it made the national press.”

His attempt to take his own life made headlines after British Transport Police decided to charge him with trespass, public nuisance and obstructing a railway line.

He faced the prospect of having to pay £24,000 to Docklands Light Railway in compensation for lost revenue for the four hours the line was shut while police negotiators talked him down from the bridge.

Prosecutors eventually dropped the case as it was deemed to be not in the public interest.

Mick was sectioned and taken to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.

“I was sick and instead of getting the help I needed, I was treated like a criminal,” he said.

After that initial ordeal, in the same year he again tried to take his life in a park in the city.

“I ended up being hospitalised on a number of occasions, sectioned under the mental health act, I couldn’t cope with what I was going through, I wouldn’t engage with any services,” he explained.

“Then I went to hospital, and even then I was still negative about the whole mental health side of things, I was still thinking ‘I don’t have a problem, I’m fine, leave me alone’.

“Eventually I did get some level of stability when I got a diagnosis and the right meds, and that has given me a level of stability for about a year and a half, but I still have times where I would relapse and I would end up in hospital again.”

Despite being in the spotlight when he was at his most vulnerable, Mick was not deterred from putting himself out there to help others.

“I decided I wanted to use rugby and get men talking about their mental health and I met with Dr Phil Cooper who was doing something similar in Rugby League and I wanted to do it in Rugby Union, we met a few times and chatted and decided to work together,” he explained.

“I’m quite lucky that I’ve got him involved as a mentor and he’s one of the leading figures on mental health and dual diagnosis treatment in the UK, and from that the charity started.”

Mick says he shares his story in order to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health.

“I’m passionate about talking to as many people as I can about it because I want men and women and everyone to understand that it is okay not to be okay," he continued.

“How you are feeling is perfectly normal, nothing about what you are going through or experiencing is wrong, I think that’s where people decide ‘I’ve had enough, I want to end it’.”

He added: “I want the emphasis in people’s lives to be about hope and recovery and that they can and will have a good life. But when you’re going through that you can't really see that, so we inform people that the same way we look after her physical health, we need to do the same with our mental health.”

Mick and his mentors go into rugby clubs to engage with people, offer practical advice and tell them about services available in their local area. He most recently travelled to Wales to speak to the senior squad at Swansea RFC.

“What we do is we target groups in their own environment which fits in line with the UK’s national strategy on suicide prevention and not a lot of groups are doing that, going into the schools, rugby clubs, youth clubs, it's not just about rugby anymore, initially it started off like that and now we’re going all over.”

The charity has attracted ambassadors including former English, Irish and Welsh rugby union players and Mick says the athletes have always been on board with getting the message out there.

“Any of the professional athletes are very open about talking about mental health and encouraging other players to talk about mental health,” he said.

“Our ambassadors are professionals, they are idols for a lot of people and they think ‘oh my god, he’s talking about mental health, okay’, then it is something that they can relate to and it is accepted.”

Mick’s experiences have ultimately shaped his path in life as having previously been homelessness as a teenager, he now works fulltime in homeless outreach in Belfast.

He is also studying for a post-grad certificate in dual diagnosis at Queen’s University Belfast and it’s at Queen's where he is next spreading his message to help students keep their mental health in check.

He will be giving a talk next Monday evening (28 November) at the Mandela Hall along with former English Rugby League professional Danny Sculthorpe, former Mayo GAA player Conor Mortimer as well as mental health professional and charity co-founder Dr Phil Cooper.

State of Mind has already been well received but the team hope to sew the seeds of good mental health practice as wide as possible.

“I’d like to get into every rugby club in Ireland, I’d like to get into every school, college, university, everywhere,” Mick concluded.

“It will take a long time but it's not impossible. It’s important because everybody needs to know to take their mental health seriously because I didn’t and I ended up in a bad way.”

MORE: Read 10 practical ways to look after your mental health on State of Mind's website.

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