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Ex-jockey Walsh saddles up for mental health fight

China Daily | Updated: 2021-11-29 09:45
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Irish jump racing legend Ruby Walsh gave no quarter to his rivals but in retirement he has overseen the introduction of a groundbreaking app that helps jockeys battle mental health issues.

The 42-year-old-who is chairman of the Irish Injured Jockeys Fund (IIJF)-says it is not "a cure" but "a significant step to encourage the right behaviors".

Leafyard, a free mental health app for Ireland-based professional and amateur jockeys, provides tools, activities and support to help with general mental health concerns.

It was developed by the IIJF with the support of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB).

The app came about due to alarming findings in research commissioned by the IHRB into mental health problems among jockeys, which produced significant results when compared to other sports.

Injured jockeys were 46 times more likely to meet the criteria for depression than non-injured jockeys and reported higher levels of dissatisfaction, which is associated with distress and anxiety.

Other factors cited apart from injury affecting jockeys' mental well-being have been burnout, career dissatisfaction, impending retirement, and dieting in order to make the weight on race day.

Walsh, who suffered a litany of injuries during his career, even having his spleen removed, said the findings came as no surprise to him.

"I was upset, not shocked as I know how tough a sport it is," he said. "I do not live under a rock, I read the papers and I know how big mental health problems in society are.

"All sport is a reflection of society. This is a significant step to encourage the right behaviors."

Walsh-who holds the all-time record for most wins (59) at jump racing's showpiece, the Cheltenham Festival-says he favored talking about his problems when he was riding.

"I am 42, quite possibly of an older generation, but also everyone's background and circumstances are different," he said.

"I always felt I had people to talk to, be it my parents, wife and friends. Fortunately, I had an awful lot of people to share thoughts and opinions with and to seek advice from."

But that did not extend to the jockeys' changing room.

"The jockeys' room is no different to work environment colleagues-while you are friendly, they are still competitors," he said. "So expressing my fears was not for me. Still, it doesn't mean I didn't have them."

'Better place'

He says the younger generation are more reticent about opening up about issues affecting them in person-to-person communication.

"We live in a very different world where a lot of people do not talk (as much as before). They text, tweet, or use Instagram and Facebook to communicate," he said.

"Society has definitely changed. People do not seem to talk generally and certainly not as much about emotions, problems and issues.

"Therefore developing an app definitely fits in with society today."

Walsh-a two-time winner of the Grand National-said the app was not a medical service, more a facilitator to give "simple help".

"It's designed to identify people who may need one-on-one therapy and to find people who may be really struggling with mental health.

"It directs them to a better place...It is to help them live better, to be well hydrated, and have healthy sleep patterns."

Walsh hopes the success of the app-he says he is "delighted so many riders are using it"-will encourage racing authorities in other countries to introduce it.

"I am hoping those in high enough positions have an open mind," he said.


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