Belfast father tells of founding True Dad Tribe to support men's mental health
Mental health has been a huge issue of late and with Belfast having one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe, one west Belfast man decided to do something to help 'lads, dads and grandads' who need a shoulder to lean on. Gail Bell spoke to suicide survivor Gerard Curley, founder of the new True Dad Tribe which is offering much-needed male support
RICH and poor, young or old, professional or out-of-work – a new, all-embracing 'tribe' of dads is literally climbing a mountain in support of men's mental health in Belfast.
And while the True Dad Tribe is mainly made up of fathers, its founder, Gerard Curley, says men who don't have children are equally welcome to join the 'tribe' as the group supports men's health and wellbeing on several fronts, from parenting skills to fun activities which simply offer a friendly space to talk.
Although only established a few months back, members, made up of "lads, dads and grandads" group, have been out for several "mind-clearing" walks up Black Mountain, a few even organised in the stillness of the twilight hours.
"Twilight walks are quite a spiritual experience, but walking up a mountain at any time of day or night is great for mental wellbeing," says Gerard (38), himself a father, with a boy aged seven and a five year-old girl.
"Our main thrust is positive parenting and positive mental health, and while the walks are great for physical exercise, they are also an easy way to bond, to share a sense of belonging while offering mutual support in the various struggles men have in life.
"We talk about all sorts – football, kids, work, everyday things, really, and when people feel comfortable and relaxed, they open up naturally about other, deeper issues.
"Recently, I was out for a walk with just one other man, a new dad, and when I asked how he was feeling, he said that that was the first time someone had asked him the question. I think people generally don't always realise the emotional impact of new fatherhood and everyone assumes they're meant to be the strong one, the macho man, the provider.
"There are quite a lot of changes to take on board when a baby arrives and men need a support network too."
The west Belfast man, who works in the IT department at St Mary's University College on the Falls Road, was moved to reach out to men currently struggling or at risk of future mental stress after suffering traumatic personal experiences of his own.
He describes himself as a "suicide survivor" and has also lost a nephew to suicide – an event he says tore his family to pieces three years ago.
In his own case, he attempted to end his life with an overdose on the evening before his GCSE maths exam in 1996.
"I was 16 and the stress of exams was getting to me, so I think, looking back, that was the trigger," he says, "although, as in most things, there is usually more than one factor involved.
"Other life events had impacted me, including the sudden death of an uncle, Fr Gerald Curley, who was murdered in Texas. He was a chaplain for the US air force and was strangled at his base.
"It is the cumulative effect of things that mount up and I realised that was the case with me when I was speaking with a counsellor who explained that I had not dealt with events in my past. Things build up like a pressure cooker, so it's important to talk, to speak up and let them out.
"There should be no stigma, no embarrassment, no hush-hush or whispering in corners."
Expected to do well in his exams, Gerard took this expectation on as a heavy burden – until the load became too heavy to bear.
"I remember taking the tablets the night before my exam and then the next morning, I started to feel dizzy and I collapsed over my desk. I admitted what I had done to a concerned teacher and I was rushed to hospital.
"Today, I feel very blessed to have been given a second chance at life and now I want to give something back and help others. This area, in particular, and Belfast as a whole, has a shocking rate of male suicides and although I don't think we will ever be able to stop them all, sometimes a simple intervention like a hug or asking 'Are you OK?' can be enough to pull a person back from the brink."
Tragically, his nephew, Declan Curley (17) from Deerpark could not be saved and the trainee electrician died by suicide in May 2015.
This tragedy, which led hundreds of young people to gather for a candlelit vigil in memory of the teenager shortly after his death, and also an anti-suicide rally organised by a friend at Whiterock, Belfast, sparked a need in Gerard to "do something" to help.
"I just thought, this needs to stop," he says. "I have no professional background in mental [health] or anything, but I know doctors seem to just hand out tablets and I know the impact mental health has on families and individuals.
"When I was forced to look back at my 16-year-old self, I knew what I was going to do was wrong as soon as I did it, but the awful thing is that others who have changed their minds while in that moment, don't get a second chance.
"I was watching an online video recently of a suicide survivor who had jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and it almost had me weeping. The man was saying that he knew, the second that his fingers left the bridge, that he didn't want to go through with it. If things had ended differently, he could have realised that a second too late."
To help glean a deeper understanding of all the complex issues involved, Gerard has undertaken an ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) course and also secured the services of a training co-ordinator (Philip McTaggart) and life coach (Sean Connolly) to work with the True Dad Tribe.
Philip, of Mindskills, lost his son, also called Philip, to suicide in 2003, and later founded the well-known suicide prevention group PIPS (Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-harm), while Sean has 30 years' experience working in mentoring and life coaching.
"We are really just getting up and running and over the next number of months we aim to have a more structured programme of training and events," Gerard adds. "As well as walking mountains, we're thinking of positive parenting courses, meditation and fitness classes and photography or woodwork workshops.
"The great thing is that with lads, dads and grandads from a wide range of professional backgrounds, there is great opportunity for skills-sharing so members can benefit from the expertise of others.
"We are also designing our own T-shirts soon and these will bear positive mental health messages. It's not all doom and gloom; we aim to have fun and a bit of craic too. Humour is one of the most positive tools we have when it comes to good mental health."
:: Anyone who would like to find out more should visit The True Dad Tribe on Facebook or log onto truedadtribe.com