Belfast Telegraph

How Jerry Thompson's death inspired three Glentoran supporters to band together and spread the message that it's okay to not be okay

Gerard ‘Jerry’ Thompson holding his seven-month old son Thiago
Gerard ‘Jerry’ Thompson holding his seven-month old son Thiago
Claire Williamson

By Claire Williamson

A group of Irish League football fans have come together in a bid to help people struggling with their mental health - by encouraging them to share their experiences following the tragic death of Carrick Rangers player Jerry Thompson.

Dylan Gray (19), Darren Miller (25) and Ryan Batchelor (33), from across the Belfast area and all Glentoran fans, felt inspired to do something.

It comes after Gerard 'Jerry' Thompson (24) took his own life last week. His devastated family said they were still searching for answers and have warmly praised the initiative started by the fans.

His death prompted an outpouring of grief and messages from people urging others to look after and address their mental wellbeing.

Dylan recently posted online about his struggles with mental health, which prompted Darren to get in touch.

Ryan, who has suffered from anxiety and depression, got on board straight away.

Dylan spoke courageously on social media about his battles, which saw him suffer badly from depression.

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He had previously considered taking his own life.

Collectively, they thought it would be good to create somewhere that people from the football community - and further afield - could come together and share their stories. They decided on a Twitter page called Irish League Mental Health Awareness (@IrishMental).

Dylan told this newspaper how his battle began about two years ago.

Ryan Bachelor
Ryan Bachelor
Floral tributes left at the gates of his club’s ground
The social media page the fans set up

He was struggling to cope with the pressures of exams and a relationship when a break-up threw him further into depression, which he then failed to address.

"I would always just say, 'I'm tired' or 'No, I'm fine, stop asking!'" he said.

Everything came to a head on October . A phone call from his mum saved his life in the moment that he had reached his darkest place in Liverpool.

"I remember everything like it had only happened last night," he said. "We were sat in Wetherspoon's. I had only the one drink because I knew that I wasn't feeling right. I even said to my friend at the time, 'I'm not feeling this at all' - that was almost my cry for help.

"But it was ignored with, 'Come on, mate. Once you're there, you'll enjoy it'.

"Well, that was a lie because once there I began to fall into a really deep state of depression, which ultimately led to me leaving and walking two miles home by myself, full of tears, suicidal thoughts and intentions.

Darren Miller and Dylan Gray
Darren Miller and Dylan Gray

"My mum never takes credit for helping me. She sees it as she is my mum so she is only carrying out her motherly duties.

"It's something that I cannot ever repay her for because not only did she save me, she never gave up on me.

"When I was struggling but not open about my issues, she would always be there when I just needed a hug.

"She knew exactly what way to go about getting help and has really been my rock throughout my recovery process, from checking up on me to bringing me to appointments."

Dylan shared his story to show people that you can talk about mental health.

He knew Darren and Ryan from social media and they had always shared similar footballing views on Glentoran.

Gerard ‘Jerry’ Thompson in action for Carrick Rangers
Gerard ‘Jerry’ Thompson in action for Carrick Rangers

After he shared his story, they decided to see what they could do about tackling mental health problems.

"The three of us wanted to help people and Twitter seemed to be a popular platform to do so. I guess my main reasoning was that every message shared could help someone, could save a life.

"It's really important for society as a whole to be able to be comfortable in talking about mental health.

"Our page is open to all. It's a real Irish League family getting together.

"Obviously, our page is also open to those that aren't Irish League fans as this illness does not discriminate. It needs to become normal to speak about mental health, not something that we should shy away from."

In the space of just two days, the page gained 1,100 followers and people started sending their anonymous stories about mental health.

Darren, who has anxiety, said that while mental health doesn't discriminate, men are less likely to speak out about it.

"Part of the thing with me was I didn't realise I had anxiety," he explained.

"I had it most of my life since I was a teenager. It was only when someone explained to me what it was that I realised.

"All we want to do is basically to start the conversation, we can't wait for another person within the football community to pass away."

Speaking about his own struggles, Darren said that it's better to be open about depression before it gets the opportunity to develop.

"There has been times when I wouldn't lift my head, couldn't go into work or anything like that, but I don't let it control me whatsoever. I'm very open with how I talk about it," he added.

"It's better just to be open about it and get the weight off your shoulder before it starts to develop and take root in your head."

They have had a phenomenal response, with both men and women sharing their personal stories in a bid to spread the message that it's okay not to be okay.

"There have been so many messages where people are just having a conversation about their mental health.

"The support has been amazing, but to be honest there has always been a support there within the Irish League community. I just don't think they had a way of collectively talking about it. We just wanted to give everybody a bit of a platform if they are ever feeling lost. We are not professionals, but certainly drop us a message and we'll help you find the right help.

"Even if we are just having a conversation on Twitter and people are sharing their stories, then it's been a success already."

The goal is to have players and coaches involved and set up a network where anybody at any club in the Irish League has someone to turn to if they are feeling lost or need help.

Darren explained: "Most of us go to matches every week - the clubs are a second home to us.

"People are maybe more comfortable reaching out that way than going to a doctor.

"It's just another avenue for people to find help."

While the page was set up by Glentoran fans, footballing rivalries are firmly set aside as they aim to reach as many people as possible.

"Within minutes we had messages from Linfield fans, Crusaders fans, Portadown fans," said Darren.

"It doesn't matter who you support. We set the rivalries aside because there is a bigger picture we all need to look at here within the league.

"There are so many different aspects to mental health within the league and we need to do our part in breaking the stigma."

The Irish League is a tight-knit community and, since the passing of Jerry Thompson, Darren said they have been brought even closer together.

"The one thing it did show was the strength of the Irish League community.

"It didn't matter who you supported, you were offering your support and thoughts.

"It did sort of bring the league together a little bit. With what we are doing at the moment, hopefully we can avoid something like that in the future.

"But we do need other people to get involved - that's the whole point of what we're doing."

Next year they are looking into doing some fundraising and have already had the offer of one of the Irish League grounds for a charity match, which is something they hope to build upon.

"We are not a charity, we are just a group of people trying to make a difference within our own Irish league community," Darren said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call Lifeline, the 24/7 freephone counselling helpline on 0808 808 8000

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