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Dublin: 5°C Monday 8 March 2021

'Just don't give up': Finnegan living proof that there is always a better day ahead

Mick Finnegan has an invaluable tale to pass on to anyone struggling with mental health.

NO MATTER WHAT the circumstances, how bad a situation feels or bleak an outlook may seem, there is always a road back. There is a path to something better.

Mick Finnegan is living proof.

A native of Dublin, a veteran of rough-sleeping and both sides of support services, Finnegan currently finds himself enjoying the greatest level of stability he has known in a decade.

In the days over Christmas, a time when so many find it extremely difficult to cope as cultures rejoice outwardly and it becomes increasingly overwhelming for those with an inner anguish, the mere sight of Finnegan’s tweets came as an uplifting beacon. Because he has come back from the brink.

“Nearly four years I’m back on the island of Ireland and I think this is the longest time I’ve been employed since 2009,” he tells The42.

In those four years back on these shores, Finnegan has continued his passion for working in socially disadvantaged areas, from a ‘wet hostel’ in Belfast’s docklands and on to his current role with the NHS.  When the 35-year-old speaks about his role as mental health peer support in a County Armagh psychiatric ward, the pride shines through.

“My main role is to share with patients about my own struggles and encourage them to engage with services and treatment.”

He lives to pass his story on. To help others avoid the same pitfalls he fell into. And his message is reaching far beyond one unit. London’s Royal College of Psychiatrists sought out Finnegan to work as an advisor with the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH).

“It’s a bit surreal,” he says, “I’m from Crumlin and now I’m in England helping shape mental health policy and improving services.”

I’m there to share my experience of accessing services in London. I was detained, several times, under the Mental Health Act in London. Now I have the opportunity to go over there, share my experience and look at the training, educating staff around various areas of care.

“Whether it’s restraints or other elements of practice… surprisingly the staff, even at the NCCMH, they are very interested in what I had to say.”

Finnegan’s input is invaluable because he has walked the walk. He has shunned help and pushed himself away. But he also reeled himself right back in.

“When I first presented to mental health services, I wasn’t engaging, I wasn’t taking my meds. That ultimately led to me being detained, being arrested and sectioned and stuff like that.

The main focus for me is to show the patients that recovery, mental health recovery, is possible.”

“I’m diagnosed with bi-polar and PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] and EUPD [Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder]. Now I’m able to hold down a job. I take my meds on a regular basis and meet with my GP and have a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) in place that enables me to maintain my mental health.

“So even if I’m going through a bad patch, I’m able to pick up the phone and I’ve a number to get in touch with straight away.”

“I think I’ve more of an insight now, whereas before I’d have a complete meltdown and end up standing on a bridge in central London, shouting all sorts at the police and threatening to jump off.”

Perhaps you already recognise Finnegan’s name or his distinctive flame red beard from these pages five years ago. Then, we spoke to the Dubliner after he had found a love of rugby with a little help from the School of Hard Knocks initiative on TV.

From there, he took a shine to rugby coaching. It was work that took him to new horizons: hardy areas in east London, standard-bearing professional clubs and the troubled kid from Crumlin soon found himself being praised by the high-society types in Notting Hill for how he had coached their kids.

Rugby was good to Finnegan for a time. And it hurt him deeply when punishing restrictions were put on his coaching opportunities. His well-documented background was not something he could hide from. The first attempt on his own life featured a four-hour stand off with police, so it took the most rudimentary of Google searches to bring the details back to the surface and the criminal record he picked up accompanied him on each job application. His disclosure would have ramifications with the governing bodies who give funding, and a club who weren’t interested in finding a workaround.

In the winter of 2014, Finnegan’s name hit the headlines again after he disappeared. That was when he made a third attempt on his own life.

Each path to stability in mental health is different and extremely personal. That is why it is vital to seek and engage with professional help to tailor the way that is right for each individual. For Finnegan, the framework of his WRAP has served him well, partly because it places an onus back on himself to act when he recognises an issue or a change in his emotional state.

“I find a WRAP helps me, because you separate it out: your early warnings, your triggers, what to do when you’re feeling a particular way.

It depends on the person, they might be at a stage where they don’t want to engage. If you turned around to me back in 2009, even right up to 2015, saying ‘come on, do your WRAP plan.’ I’d be [saying] ‘get away from me, ya…’

“I wouldn’t have been interested in it at all. I would have talked a little bit, but there was a lot of stuff there I wasn’t dealing with, especially stuff from childhood that I was only able to resolve last year.

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“Personal responsibility matters. You can take all the meds and turn up to all your appointments, but sometimes if you don’t take personal responsibility for yourself then you will struggle.

“It is important to engage, I don’t know how it is in Dublin, but up here I’m lucky to have a really good community mental health team, great GP, I did have a really good psychiatrist but now I’m at a point where I don’t need to be in with them all the time. I got discharged from all that.”

Source: Left Behind/SoundCloud

And yet, it’s far from a Utopian existence. Life has that nasty way of continuing to deliver cruel realities. The least of his worries is an Achilles tendon injury keeping him out of action with Portadown RFC. 

It’s just over a year since his younger brother Ciaran died of an overdose. He is currently in the midst of a health scare — while we cross fingers for a positive outcome from tests and scans, he says “I’ll be grand. Trust, me I’ve come through worse than this”  — and he is speaking to The42 in the days after his grandmother’s funeral, the woman who shaped his persona and inner drive to help others.

The journey back home distilled a clear vision of how far he has come, but also a sadness at the sight of “the same lads sleeping rough, same blokes using heroin. The lads I’d have known for years.”

He desperately wants to make a difference in Dublin. It’s the town he was raised in, the town where he first began working in outreach, and he knows his voice will ring true for a huge population.

I’m from Dublin, I’m from the inner city and I want to do something for the community. If it wasn’t for the likes of Focus Ireland and the Salvation Army, I’d still be on the streets, homeless.”

Finnegan regularly works with the State of Mind charity, an organisation with the express goal of preventing suicide and promoting good mental health among sportspeople – be they amateur or professional.  That venture recently took him in front of the Ospreys rugby squad among one of many speaking events across Britain and Ireland, but he is passionate about taking his message to schools in Dublin.

FB_IMG_1508867239237 Tom and Matt Morgan with Finnegan at a mental health conference in Bridgend.

“It doesn’t cost the schools anything. I’m doing it out of a genuine… a passion to try and make a difference for young people, so they know it’s OK not to be OK and not be worrying about all the stuff you see on social media. Because the reality is a lot of it isn’t real.

“There’s an expectation put on you, your appearance, your body, your health and we try to give them coping mechanisms, ways to improve, and helping them look out for each other and challenge that.”

Especially coming from the inner city, you can be addicted to the environment you’re from. I say it all the time. Your background explains your behaviour, it doesn’t excuse it.

“Nothing’s impossible.

“I was a rough sleeper. I was kicked out of home when I was in my teens. Ended up sleeping rough for years. Got off the streets and started working with the homeless in Dublin, with drug users.

“Went from there to London to do the same job again. OK, I had my problems and battles with my mental health, but if I can… y’know, with a little knowledge and education, can achieve, then…”

The breaks and gaps in Finnegan’s sentence seem to come just as he is on the verge of giving himself a hard slap on the back. His journey deserves that and more.

“Even just sitting reading a report from the national advisory role and I’m thinking, if I can do this with little or no education, imagine young people in Dublin, they could be the same.

“They can go on and do whatever they want. 

“Just don’t give up.”

No matter how dark the day.

Need help? Support is available:

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

A list of HSE and HSE-funded services can be found here

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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