- 24 Oct 22
Michael Conlan is one of the most successful Irish boxers of recent times. Here, he speaks about the importance of opening up about mental health issues...
Born in Belfast in 1991, Michael Conlan is one of the most successful Irish boxers of the modern era. An Irish champion, he reached No.1 in the AIBA bantamweight world rankings. A bronze medal winner in the 2012 Olympics, he snaffled the gold at the 2015 World Championships. However, he became totally disillusioned with the amateur game when he was eliminated in his 2016 Olympic Quarter-Final against Vladimir Nikitin from Russia. Conlan blasted the judges, insisting that the decision was corrupt – and there was general agreement that he had, indeed, been robbed.
He turned professional shortly afterwards and has gone on to win 17 of his 18 professional fights to date. He won the WBO Inter-Continental featherweight title in 2018; the WBA Inter-Continental featherweight title in 2019; the WBO International super-bantamweight title in 2021; and the WBA Interim featherweight title, also in 2021. He suffered the only defeat of his professional career to Leigh Wood, in a World featherweight title in March of this year. He has since returned to action, defeating Miguel Marriaga in Belfast, in August.
Growing up in West Belfast, were you aware of how high the rates of suicide and depression were in the area?
Growing up, the first time I had heard about suicide was when a person I knew took his own life. However, after that I sadly heard of more people dying by suicide and it was a scary time. It was only a few years later that I heard we had one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe – if not the highest.
Why has it been important to you, to use your platform to speak about mental health issues?
I’ve seen so many people from my area suffer in silence with bad mental health and you don’t hear about it until the worst thing happens, and someone sadly takes their own life. I want to prevent that from happening and help give people the courage to speak up and use their voice.
Was sport always an important outlet for you, when it came to your own mental health?
Honestly, yes. Boxing gave me something to focus on and helped me set goals to achieve. I think it’s an important part of a young person’s life to take up sport – or a different activity – for your mental well-being.
What advice would you give young people who might be struggling with mental health issues?
Get out and get active, try things that challenge you physically or mentally. Set goals, big or small, and try to hit them. I’ve been following Wim Hof for the last few years and have realised how beneficial cold water immersion and breath work is for my mental health, I think people should check him out on YouTube and try out his methods.
What more do you think needs to be done to properly address these issues across society?
I think we need more money invested in the services and outlets who are trying to help people who are affected. In schools, kids need to be taught more on mental health awareness.
How important do you think good mental health is for athletes in particular?
For athletes, it’s very important to have good mental health. To perform at your peak and perform well, you need to be in the right mind frame and focus – and if you had bad mental health you couldn’t do that.
Has the sporting industry improved in terms of encouraging athletes to mind their mental health?
I think it has to be fair. I’ve seen a lot of people in boxing speak out about their mental health and it has been respected and supported by the boxing industry, so I think we are moving in the right direction.
What is the biggest mental struggle for athletes, is it the extreme highs and lows?
The highs are amazing but the lows are horrible. I’ve had my fair share of both but the main thing for me that keeps me balanced is my family. I also think how short sports careers are – that’s an issue. For a lot of athletes, how life will be after sport lingers on them.
Where do you think Ireland needs to improve – whether in terms of our mental health services or society’s attitudes towards mental health?
I think there needs to be more talk of mental health and more acceptance. Over the last number of years I’ve seen more and more people speak about it, which is great. Hearing it spoken about frequently on Podcasts and YouTube clips for example is very positive. We aren’t there yet, but we are moving in the right direction.
Do you think awareness campaigns go far enough?
To be honest, no. Once the campaign is done there is not much follow up. There needs to be a solid plan in place after, and it needs to be followed up on.
• Michael is an Aware.ie ambassador
You can read the full Hot Press Mental Health Special in the current issue of Hot Press: