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'It was nearly a full-time job trying to mask what was going on behind the scenes'

Cavan’s Rónán Patterson launched ‘Need To Talk?’ to raise awareness about mental health after his own struggles.

Need To Talk: Rónán Patterson.
Need To Talk: Rónán Patterson.
Image: Need To Talk.

Updated Dec 26th 2020, 9:44 PM

IT’S SO IMPORTANT to normalise talking about mental health.

I think we have this culture, especially in Cavan, where people just say, ‘Ah, I’m grand,’ or, ‘I’m okay…’ ‘How are ya keeping?’ ‘I’m grand.’ We need to spend that extra couple of minutes talking to someone, especially now with the pandemic and Christmas as well.

That’s why I came up with Need To Talk? It might strike up a conversation with someone asking them what’s it about. Hopefully it does, and it helps someone along the way.

***

Rónán Patterson wants to help people going through what he went through. And that’s why he set up Need To Talk?, an Irish mental health awareness clothing brand.

The Cavan 21-year-old has travelled the long road and struggled with his own demons through sport, and life in general. This summer, he shared his story as he launched his new venture, and he hasn’t looked back since. 

There’s light at the end of the tunnel now, but there was a time when there was nothing but darkness. To understand his own mental health story fully, one must go back to when he was 16.

A bout of glandular fever knocked him for six and derailed his impressive sporting exploits in both Gaelic football, which he played for Cavan and his club, Ramor United, and rugby, where he represented Ulster.

“That really hit me hard,” he tells The42. “I lost a lot of weight and was suffering from really low moods from it. It really set me back. It took me maybe three to four months to get back physically from it, and I was still suffering from low moods.”

As the emotional impact continued, a trip to the doctor reassured Patterson that it linked back to the illness and that over time, he’d get better. But he didn’t.

A few months passed and he saw no difference. The low moods, low energy and “careless attitude” towards sport, school and life continued. Back to the doctor he went.

“That’s kind of when I started my journey of telling people that I wasn’t feeling well,” the Virginia man picks up.

I spoke to the doctor and he told me about anxiety and depression. It was strange for me at the time as a teenager, sitting in front of someone and telling them that I’m not feeling good — or I’m not feeling as well as I was. That was very daunting.”

He knew something wasn’t right though. As he says himself, he didn’t care about his Leaving Cert. He didn’t have the energy to. “I was a teenager that was always looking at the future and wanting to be better in myself so I found it tough at the time.”

He had no interest in football; his hunger and passion was gone. His mind was elsewhere when he graced the hallowed turf of Croke Park for the 2017 All-Ireland minor semi-final against Kerry. He couldn’t have cared less when he got an email about an AFL trial in his early college days studying construction management as he navigated the back route to what he wanted.

From the outside looking in, this was a young man who looked like he was living the dream, particularly in a sporting capacity. But the reality was very different.

My friends would describe me as energetic and outgoing,” he nods. “What was going on behind the scenes, it was nearly a full-time job trying to mask it.

“It was hard to tog out for training when I just didn’t have the energy levels or the drive that I used to. I just kept overthinking, getting these negative thoughts in my head: ‘You’re not adding to the team anymore,’ and ‘Everyone’s noticing that you’re not performing great anymore.’ There were just so many questions being asked.

“I really struggled with sport. Even though people say that there’s no pressure on you. I always kind of had that in my head that there is. It was hard to deal with when I was playing games.”

Patterson remembers a few standout moments of realisation as he tried to come to terms with these feelings. His councillor at Virginia College, Fr Jason Murphy, who came on board after a “shock incident” at the school, helped a lot.

IMG_6090 Patterson on the ball for Cavan. Source: Rónán Patterson.

“I was very lucky to have him in the school, he really taught me everything I knew about mental health really at the time. You’d feel so comfortable talking to him about it.

“At that time, I recognised that it’s normal not to feel good and that a lot of people suffer with low moods. It was nice to get a bit of reassurance off the likes of him.”

Of course he confided in his nearest and dearest too, but another mentor who played a big part on his road to recovery was his underage county manager, John Brady, who was also a Ramor clubman and family friend.

He recalls one conversation in particular in the stand of Breffni Park as he considered stepping away from the Cavan U21 panel.

I just remember going to him, saying, ‘John, I need to talk to you.’ He sat me down and goes, ‘What’s up?’ I was just like, ‘I don’t really have a passion for it anymore. I don’t think I’m adding to the team. I feel like it’s a chore coming to training now. I feel like it’s unfair on the rest of the players that I’m still turning up and not giving it a full 100%.’

“He just brought me back into it and was like, ‘Why did you come here in the first place?’ He talked to me about the amount of friends I made from it and it’s true, the amount of friends I made from that county team is unbelievable and I still talk to them to this day. A really nice factor around the GAA is friendships.

“I was lucky to have John to tell me to put the head down and finish it out. There was only a few more weeks left anyway, but I would have regret it if I did drop off the panel at that time.”

Patterson counts his blessings each and every day that he met these people along the way, and that they provided a helping hand and a listening ear. And he’s able to look back and smile at his own initiative now.

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Last year, his struggles with sport came to a head in a senior club game after his playing his usual impact sub role, one he struggled to deal with games in the melting pot.

I got so bad, I had a complete panic attack on the pitch. I remember being in Breffni and this was only a quarter-final, someone asked me after the game if I was okay, I just broke down and couldn’t catch my breath again.

“That’s when I told myself, ‘This is enough. I need to step away.’ As much as people want me to stay there, I know for my mental health that I just needed to get away from it for a while.”

Through the break, Need To Talk? was born. While happy in his current college course, quantity surveying in DIT, an idea sprung to mind during the summer.

“I’ve always wanted to give back,” he smiles. “When I didn’t do well in my Leaving Cert I actually wanted to go the back route and do psych nursing or go on and do psychology.

“I always wanted to be able to give back and help others. I absolutely love what I’m doing now, I love quantity surveying but I always still wanted to give back to younger people. I didn’t really know how to.

I don’t know how, I just got this thought in my head with the pandemic, everyone’s online now and everyone’s really struggling. I wanted to think of a way to spread awareness, make it cool and make it in a way that it will spark conversation easily.

And that’s where he came up with the clothing brand, of which a percentage of profits are donated to mental health charities in Ireland and the UK.

It certainly appeals to young people, the logo on tops and jerseys starting conversations based on the meaning behind it across the length and breadth of the country.

“I wanted to spread awareness and I just thought maybe it would be a cool way to interact with teenagers and even young adults with the clothing and try to make it cool and normalise the stigma around it.”

“People ask me did I know anything about fashion and sure I wouldn’t have a clue like,” he adds with a laugh. “Most teenagers, we want to keep up with fashion. To that extent, maybe I did a little bit. 

“It’s been a learning curve. Every day, I’m learning something new or talking to someone in the industry. It’s an exciting project for me as well, people are saying ‘Fair play to you’ and ‘Well done for what you’re doing,’ but people don’t understand how much it’s helping me as well.”

Patterson can’t stress enough how important it is to raise awareness about mental health, particularly in this day and age through the Covid-19 pandemic.

He’s witnessed first hand the devastating affect suicide has had in the county of Cavan over the past few months, several young men in particular dying tragically. Talk, he says. Have the conversation. Don’t just say, ‘I’m grand,’ if you’re not, and make sure to check in on your friends and family.

That’s what he’s done, and it’s reaped its rewards.

The reaction to Need To Talk? has been massive — “it was obviously daunting at the start but I’m so happy to see where it’s going now.” He’s been contacted by schools, companies and sports teams to come in and tell his story and spread awareness, and that’s the plan should 2021 allow it.

While it’s widely said that sport benefits mental health, Patterson’s story — and many others’ at the top level — goes against that. It’s exercise, he explains: “On my social media I’m trying to preach exercise, sport and that. I feel like I’m a hypocrite sometimes saying to go out and play sport. At the end of the day, it is exercise that’s the big thing.”

But now, he’s trying to rekindle his love for it and get back into it.

Cavan football’s success this year has certainly gone a long way in doing just that, their first Ulster title lift since 1997 a special moment for Patterson and the entire county.

It was something that Cavan needed for sure after the year it’s had, with Covid and suicide and stuff like that. It was just something nice to bring back to the community.

“I think Mickey and Raymond’s speeches after the Ulster final would give anyone a bit of energy to go back and play a bit of football; what they said and how much it meant to them. It was really nice,

“I was absolutely delighted for the boys. They’re a committed bunch and they really want to change the culture in Cavan.”

Just like Patterson himself, but in a different capacity.

***

You can find the Need To Talk? website at www.needtotalk.ie, reach out on Instagram or Facebook @needtotalkmentalhealth, Twitter @needtotalkie or email needtotalkmentalhealth@gmail.com.

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Emma Duffy

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