Michael Conlan compelled to help fight Northern Ireland's suicide crisis

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Michael Conlan during his WBA and WBO Inter-Continental featherweight title bout against Diego Alberto Ruiz on Aug. 3, 2019, at Falls Park in Belfast. (Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

For a brief while in early January, one could have been excused for mistaking Michael Conlan’s Twitter page for eBay, because the the two-time Olympian was auctioning off so much of his personal boxing memorabilia.

There were signed gloves and shorts and so much more. And each time someone would bid, Conlan would gleefully retweet it and announce the new high bid.

He wasn’t, though, trying to make a few extra dollars. The unbeaten Irish featherweight, who returns to the ring on St. Patrick’s Day at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York when he takes on Belmar Preciado, was devastated by the suicides of two young boxers from his native Northern Ireland, which has the highest suicide rate in the United Kingdom.

People in Belfast are dying by suicide at an astonishingly high rate. Conlan and other Irish celebrities are urging the government to do more to call attention to the problem and to provide support for those who need it.

Conlan had a letter drawn up that he and other celebrities signed calling for the government to do more to help reduce the suicide rate in Northern Ireland. Conlan was fueled by the death of 11-year-old boxer Cillian Drain, who in early January took his own life.

He was later joined in his efforts by boxers Carl Frampton and Katie Taylor, among others.

Conlan said he was devastated by Drain’s suicide and felt he would not be able to face his children if he didn’t use his celebrity as a force for good to make a difference in their world. So he took action to try to affect positive change.

“I have two young kids, and I don’t want them to grow up where suicide is accepted and where they believe it’s a normal way to die,” Conlan told Yahoo Sports by telephone from London, where he is training for his bout with Preciado.

“When my children are old enough to understand the world they live in, if they say to me, ‘Dad, what did you do?’ I don’t think it’s good enough to say, ‘Yeah, I was a champion.’ Great. I want to be able to tell them that I tried my best to break this terrible cycle and to make Northern Ireland a better place for young people to live. I want to show them what is really important and what really matters and that when their Dad saw this, he didn’t stand by and say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ and go back to train for his fight. I want my kids to know that I took a stand and I tried to do the right thing and I did whatever I am capable of doing to fix this terrible situation.”

There were more than 300 suicides in Northern Ireland in 2018, the last year with complete records. Several young boxers who took their own lives were from the area in Belfast where Conlan is from.

It touched home in a way that not much has ever done in his life. He’s met with the families of those who have taken their own lives and mourned with them, but there’s been a sense of helplessness when doing that. 

Comforting the survivors was the least he could do, but it didn’t really do much to solve the underlying issue. 

Conlan, who has been urging the government to declare suicide an epidemic and a public health emergency, said he wanted everyone to know that there is always someone who cares and that help is available to anyone who is overcome by their problems and thinking of harming themselves.

“If I could say one thing to someone [thinking of taking his life] it would be, ‘Stop and don’t be afraid to talk about your problems,’” he said. “I know people in this world are hurting and when they are, they think their problems will last forever. There is help out there. Suicide is never the answer, never. Talk about your problems and find help.”

If you or someone you know needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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