Suicides still the same as 20 years ago says Malin-Mizen cycle challenge man Sean
Cycling benefitted Portadown mechanic Sean Stuart's mental health so when he heard about another suicide among men he knew, he decided to cycle from Malin to Mizen to raise awareness and, hopefully, a few bob
AROUND four years ago, after going through "a rough patch", Co Armagh man Sean Stuart bought himself a bike to help boost his mood and get fit.
Being out in the countryside and enjoying the benefits of regular exercise, the 38-year-old mechanic from Portadown became an avid cyclist – heading out on his own three or four times a week.
He'd always fancied the idea of exploring the west of Ireland on his own, cycling round the coast to take in the spectacular scenery. Then when a young man he knew locally took his own life, Sean decided to get on his bike and complete the well-trodden Malin to Mizen route, to raise funds for Action Mental Health and to raise awareness about male anxiety and depression particularly.
The route sees Sean cycle from Malin Head in Donegal, Ireland's most northerly point, to Mizen Head in Co Cork, the country's most southerly point. As the crow flies, the two points are around 300 miles apart but longer still when sticking to the roads network.
Last Saturday, Sean set off from Malin Head and hopes to reach his destination this Saturday, but he's not thinking too much about the distance he's already covered or whether or not he'll make the journey within the time frame he's given himself. He's just hoping to reach Mizen Head without putting himself under too much pressure.
Sean says: “The plan is to be finished by this Saturday but if it takes a bit longer, then I won't worry too much. I'm hoping to cover 50 or 60 miles a day, staying overnight in a hostel each night along the route. It takes me from Malin to Letterkenny, down through Bundoran, on to Westport and on down to Cork. I won't be hugging the coastline because that'll just add more days to the journey.
“I know there are a lot of hills and mountains to tackle but I'm trying not to think about that. It's a tough enough trek but I'll get to see lots of beautiful countryside on the way and I'm looking forward to that.”
The father-of-one feels very strongly that not enough attention is given to the subject of mental health in the north and that services to help people who are struggling don't suffice. Having seen for himself the benefits of exercise on mental health, he believes leisure centres should offer free services to those most in need and that more men would take up exercise as a way of dealing with their problems if leisure centres were free.
“I'm not one for talking about these things myself,” he says. “But that's part of the problem – a lot of men aren't. But offer them swimming facilities or get them into some kind of sport, and I really think that would help.
“I know for myself, when I started cycling four years ago, it really helped me. I felt better in myself, not just physically but mentally. Cycling really helped to pull me round when I went through a rough patch.”
Sean was just 16 years old when he was impacted by suicide for the first time. A friend of the same age took his own life, which was a terrible shock to all who knew the teenager. Six months later, another friend died by suicide, quickly followed by the man's brother.
Within a period of 12 months, five young men known to Sean had all died. In total, he reckons he has known about 20 people who have died by suicide and feels the situation won't improve until mental health is made a priority by the government and health services.
“I don't know why the numbers are so high here; maybe it's related to the Troubles,” he says. “There are many different factors, I suppose. But when all those men died, it was almost 20 years ago and things haven't changed in all that time. More needs to be done.”
It was when he heard of the recent suicide in his town that Sean decided he would do his mara-cycle from Malin to Mizen to raise money for Action Mental Health. Being able to jump on his bike every day and hit the roads around his home during lockdown helped his mood but he knew other people weren't faring so well with the restrictions.
Coming out of lockdown, he started to organise the fundraiser, which he is doing on his own. But he says he's not bothered about doing the long journey without company.
“I enjoy cycling on my own and I'll probably cover more distance that way,” he says. “My girlfriend Giovanna will be coming down to Cork to meet up with me in the hotel, when I finish.
“When I bought the bike, I had it in my head that I would cycle the west of Ireland. Then when I heard about that young man's suicide, I thought it would be a good idea to do it as a fundraiser.
“I know I'll feel tired when it's all over but I'll feel great too. Cycling always has that effect on me, plus I'm getting to see some amazing countryside.
“I've done a lot of cycling so I think I'm fit enough but I had to practise for a few days with my backpack strapped on. It's like carrying a small child so it's definitely made it tougher.”
Physical challenges aren't new to Sean though. Two years ago, he walked the Camino de Santiago on his own, although he was able to meet up with two of his sisters who lived along the route. One of his sisters, who still lives there, runs an albergue (hostel) with her Spanish husband, whom she met on the walk.
When Sean set out to do it, he was single. But he met his Italian girlfriend a third of the way into the route and not long after, she relocated to Co Armagh.
“I'm not what you'd call a spiritual person but there was something spiritual about doing the Camino,” says Sean. "It really shows you just how small a place this is that we're living in. There are people who think Armagh is their whole world, but half the people I met over there hadn't even heard of it.
“It was an amazing experience and I'd recommend it to anyone to do at least once, even though I did it during a heatwave, in temperatures of 42 degrees. I was exhausted when I got home and it took me a few weeks to readjust.”
Cycling down through Ireland will be something of a spiritual experience too for Sean, as he gets to visit places he's always wanted to see but never got around to.
“I'd love to see the Cliffs of Moher and the Ring of Kerry, but we'll see how the cycling goes,” he says. “I'm just crossing my fingers for a nice downhill spin with a tailwind at my back.
“As long as I get to Mizen and raise the target of £1,000, I'll be more than happy.”