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'When dad died, I didn't know about depression... he couldn't find his light, but I know that he'd want me to do everything I can to help others' says former NI star Aoife Lennon

Former footballer backing suicide awareness campaign

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Aoife Lennon

Aoife Lennon

Northern Ireland's Aoife Lennon battles with Bulgaria's Silviya Radoyska

Northern Ireland's Aoife Lennon battles with Bulgaria's Silviya Radoyska

� Gareth Irvine / Presseye

Aoife Lennon and her dad

Aoife Lennon and her dad

Aoife Lennon

Aoife Lennon

Aoife Lennon

Aoife Lennon

Mandatory Credit Darren Kidd/Pre

Aoife Lennon

Aoife Lennon

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Aoife Lennon

A former Northern Ireland footballer has told how she battled depression and anorexia after her dad took his own life when she was 13.

Aoife Lennon (28) opened her heart ahead of an event to raise awareness of suicide next Saturday.

She and current Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan are part of a team of ambassadors encouraging people to sign up for this year's Darkness Into Light.

The event, sponsored by Electric Ireland, has become a global movement of comfort, solidarity and hope for anyone affected by suicide and self-harm.

With mental health problems so common in Northern Ireland, Aoife is determined to do whatever she can to help.

She was 13 when her chef father John took his own life after a long battle with depression.

His death left Aoife, her three brothers and mum Karen in a state of deep shock for some time.

However, it was several years before the real trauma hit, with Aoife beginning to struggle with depression that eventually gave way to anorexia in her late teens.

At the time, she was playing for Armagh City, where she's from, and the Northern Ireland squad, but as her illness gripped, she had to give it up.

"When my dad died, I didn't know anything about depression. At that time, mental health wasn't talked about, and my dad hid it from me," she explained.

"We all tried to find a way to cope. Mum had four children to bring up on her own, but she tried to keep us going.

"My dad only ever showed me love and affection. I had no idea that he had been struggling with depression."

Aoife, then a pupil at St Catherine' College in Armagh, threw herself into her studies and her football.

As well as playing for her home club, she turned out for Newry City and made it onto the Northern Ireland football team aged 11.

Aoife travelled widely with the national squad, progressing through the age groups and making her senior international debut against Wales aged 17.

She shifted clubs to Newry City that same year and helped them to battle their way up to the premiership to play in Europe.

However, her sporting dream started to crumble when, around the age of 18, she began to suffer from depression.

Fuelled by the trauma of her dad's death and the pressure she put herself under to be fit, this developed into anorexia.

"I just knew something wasn't right. My mood was low and I didn't want to go out. I just wanted to be on my own," Aoife said.

"I remember telling my manager at Newry City how I felt, and he persuaded me to get help.

"I did get therapy, which helped me realise I had been suppressing a lot of emotion and pain. I can look back now and see that.

"I have spent the past few years working through the pain and trauma. I've been doing a lot of self-development, which has made a big difference.

"When I developed anorexia, I was training a lot for football and was focusing on what I was eating and putting myself under pressure.

"I'm learning about it, and I understand that it was about suppressed emotions.

"I dropped to under eight stone and was so weak and tired that I couldn't train anymore."

Aoife spent her early 20s getting better. Today, she has come out the other side of her illness and is studying for exams to qualify as a life coach.

As someone with first-hand experience of what mental health problems can do to people and their families, she has been doing what she can to help promote suicide awareness, including supporting Darkness Into Light.

The theme of this year's event is urging participants to enjoy "one sunrise together", with organisers calling on people to mark the initiative with an activity of their choice, be that walking, running, hiking, biking or sharing the sunrise, all within Covid guidelines.

The aim of the annual event, which is supported by approximately 200,000 people around the world, is to shine a light on suicide and self-harm.

It also raises money for the prevention and bereavement services provided by 17 partner charities in Northern Ireland, as well as Pieta, the founding charity of Darkness Into Light.

Trek NI, a nature website, is marking the event by signposting the best walks and places to watch the sunrise across Northern Ireland.

For Aoife (left), taking part is a way to help vulnerable people and remember her father.

"I'm in the happiest place I've ever been right now, so I want to help others," she said.

"This is an event that is so close to my heart. I know my dad would want me to raise awareness. He couldn't find his light, but I believe he gave me the light to help others and do as much as I can.

"I've had a lot of support from Electric Ireland. I would like to thank them for that and urge people to take part."

÷ For information about signing up to the event and raising funds, visit www.darknessintolight.com

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