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Cycling the roads of Ireland to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues

Cycle Against Suicide CEO and radio personality Colm Hayes talks to The42 ahead of this year’s cycle.

Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“IT’S OK NOT to feel ok, and it’s absolutely ok to ask for help.”

Mental health and suicide awareness charity Cycle Against Suicide’s message is one which almost everyone across the country recognises immediately.

The annual two-week cycle kicks off on Sunday morning, and marks the fifth edition. Since its inception in 2012, Cycle Against Suicide has broken boundaries and truly raised the conversation surrounding somewhat taboo issues.

The initiative was originally the brainchild of entrepreneur Jim Breen. He appeared on RTÉ’s The Secret Millionaire and around the same time, he was coming to terms with the fact that he was suffering from depression.

He reached out to radio personality Colm Hayes who was at RTÉ 2fm at the time and from there, the concept became a reality.

“Jim Breen just witnessed the levels of appalling mental health on the north side of Dublin,” Hayes tells The42. “Especially for young people. Anxiety, depression, suicide…

“After he did that show, he approached me and he said ‘look, I really think we could come together and create an awareness charity to try and get people to talk about their mental health.’

“2fm rowed in behind the idea then, and we created Cycle Against Suicide, which was back in 2012. Early 2013 we got an appearance on the Late Late Show, and April 2013 was our very first annual cycle. It started and went 14 days right around Ireland.

“The idea of the cycle is that it’s a 14-day long event. We cycle 100km a day. It’s not a race, it’s a cycle. People join us for two weeks, sometimes for a week, sometimes for a day or two days. We attend schools in the morning and the lunchtime and we have events every morning and every lunchtime, where we talk to students about positive mental health and they talk to us about positive mental health.

“We have presentations and speakers, music and that sort of stuff, and then we head off to the next venue. Across the 14 days, we have 28 events, and we worked out last year that we probably spoke to over 14,000 students across the two weeks. It all begins again on Sunday at Swords Castle, we head off at half 10 and the fifth annual cycle begins.

hayes Colm Hayes and Marty Morrissey ahead of the 2017 Cycle Against Suicide. Source: Colm Hayes Twitter.

Hayes is currently the interim CEO of the charity.

Understandably, when people hear Cycle Against Suicide, they immediately think of the annual cycle. But there’s much more to it that that.

Around the calendar year, the charity organise different fundraisers and events to encourage people to talk out if they are suffering with mental health issues.

“One of the main reasons that we have the cycle is to also promote physical well being which has a direct connection to mental well being,” Hayes continues. “Anyone who plays sport knows that — that sense of feeling when you go on the pitch training, or when you go playing football, or cycling, you feel so good afterwards.

“We try to encourage that through the year with the things we do. We do spin-offs, so mini cycles that take place on a Saturday and go for six or seven hours. It’s a social event where you have three, four, five hundred cyclists.

“We’re also piloting of the Communities Against Suicide which is to have a sustaining footprint in communities so that when we do move back out to the cycle, there’s still something going on, there’s still people talking about mental health and people mentally aware.

“We also have Events Against Suicide — it’s a fun week of events and fundraising. People jump out of planes, they go kayaking, they climb mountains backwards, all sorts of things.”

Hayes himself has opened up about his own struggles with anxiety in the past. He’s spoken of late of how he used to vomit before going on air in the mornings with anxiety.

The Dubliner agrees that his work with Cycle Against Suicide and helping to break the stigma attached to mental health issues in Ireland has really helped him on a personal level.

“It is very cathartic in so many levels. I suppose I have spoken about the last year or so in 2fm, where you don’t know where it’s going. I had an idea that it was heading very young and that wasn’t going to suit me.

“In media, you’re only as good as your last contract. Some contracts are only six months long, so it can be a very anxious time.

Cycle Against Suicide launch_35 Joy Neville, Duncan Casey and Mike Sherry at the launch of the Cycle Against Suicide launch Student Leaders’ Congress 2017. Source: Brian Gavin

“But then when you get involved with a charity as big as Cycle Against Suicide and you see the effect it has, you talk to students who actually open up about their mental health and talk about the fact that this charity and this awareness has helped them up.

“I’ve realised over the years that to really really get to grips with your own anxiety, you need to talk to somebody. That’s our message with Cycle Against Suicide — it’s ok not to feel ok and it’s absolutely ok to ask for help.

“I think it’s amazing this week as well that Prince Harry spoke out, and it was almost like he was reading our literature — he said exactly the same. There’s nothing wrong with feeling a little bit weird, you should ask for help. I think it’s amazing that someone like him has spoken out because it’s reassuring for other people to think ‘if he can do it, I can do it’ and that’s what we try to get out.

“That’s what helped me — talking to friends, talking to family members and being able to talk through anxieties. And then you realise they’re not as bad as you’re making them out to be. Hey I’m still alive, you know.”

The work of Cycle Against Suicide has really helped push the importance of looking after your mental health to the fore across the country since its foundation.

It has been a huge contributing factor to increased conversation, with more and more people talking about their own battles.

The stigma is being broken down. The situation has improved drastically, but there’s more to be done.

“There’s a serious way to go. It requires a cultural shift.

“If you look back on the seventies when cars people first introduced safety belts, people used to laugh and say they wouldn’t wear one. That they were ridiculous, people would be driving around without wearing them. And then slowly the cultural change of ‘hey guys, if you don’t use a safety belt, you’re going to die.’ So now you look at cars and if you see somebody without a safety belt, you go ‘you are so stupid, why would you not put that on?’

“For years, we never talked about our mental health. It was pushed back, people were put into institutions, people just denied it existed, you were looked upon as being weak if you spoke about. If you had a broken foot you’d talk about it, if you had a broken mind, you were somehow weak.

“What’s done is we’ve changed that margin whereby everyone has moments of negative mental health or bad mental health, but it’s how they deal with it and how they start talking about it.

“In 2012 when we started this campaign, we had to go into schools and we would give speeches to the students asking them to open up and talk about mental health. We go in now and they’re telling us what they’re doing, and they’re showing us the app that they created or the campaign that they put together for positive mental health.

Jason Sherlock and Niamh Briggs Former Dublin footballer Jason Sherlock and Ireland rugby player Niamh Briggs at a Cycle Against Suicide event in 2016. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“That’s a huge step, a seismic step in the space of five years. I have seen the cultural change and I can only imagine in the next five years. We’re not going to solve it, but we’re getting people to talk about it.”

In what he describes as ‘a military operation’, Hayes admits that in all of his years in radio and organising events, the annual cycle is by far the biggest.

With the 2017 cycle yet to kick off, the future for Cycle Against Suicide is very bright.

After conquering Ireland, they’re hoping that they can one day go further afield.

“It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest charity events in Ireland. It’s a prolonged 14 day event. If you put on a charity event even in the 3 Arena, it’s for one night but this moves across Ireland for 14 days.

“It’s hard to know what the future holds. We’ve often spoken about it. We’re doing it on the island of Ireland. There’s 800 suicides a year across the island of Ireland, it’s something that we’re constantly trying to deal with.

“I don’t know how much bigger it can get, or can we start branching it out to get people from England to start talking about it and get people in France to start talking about suicide. There’s a particular issue with suicide now in the Baltic nations – Lithuania have a very high influence of suicide actually.

“So maybe this strength, this movement can start crossing borders to get people to talk. That’s the big thing, just to get people to talk.”

Cycle Against Suicide kicks off this Sunday from Swords Castle at 10.30am. Registration is still open, and people can register any day of the cycle at cycleagainstsuicide.com.

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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Emma Duffy

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