‘I’m inundated with people struggling’

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By Maurice Garvey

THE first lockdown back in March seemed like a breeze compared to the latest one, which has been far tougher on residents, with the weather much worse and the novelty factor long gone.

Mental health cases have increased in recent months according to local support services and recently, the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP), said some practices are seeing “substantial” increases in demand.

Kickstart Fitness 1

Members of Kickstart Fitness

Gyms, a vital outlet for thousands in the county, went above and beyond to reopen safely for clients and staff, at great cost to individual business owners.

However, the second lockdown took that positivity away, and has had a detrimental effect on local communities, according to Darren Dillon, owner of Kickstart Fitness in Tallaght, and Shamrock Rovers Head of Strength and Conditioning.

“This time it is  different, I’m inundated daily with people struggling and have seen a direct impact on the mental health of members,” said Dillon.

“We always stick to the guidelines, my role with Rovers reflects on the gym, and we chose to close and pivot online, but lost 70 per cent of our members immediately. Then you start losing staff and it is scary.”

Kickstart was established 10 years ago and pre-Covid, counted some 250 members and 10 staff.

Dillon fears the mental health issue is widespread in the community, and not just reflected within his own professional circuit – citing three local suicides in the last six weeks.

“There are nine gyms within a two-three mile radius. The theme from talking to other places is people are struggling without that outlet. You can’t work outdoors due to the weather. It is like telling a golfer to take up darts. You can buy beer and a party pack of pizza but can’t go to the gym.”

It is a sentiment shared by Clondalkin TD Mark Ward, Sinn Fein spokesperson on mental health, who wrote to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly at the start of the latest lockdown, seeking the “rationale and evidence” used to close gyms.

Deputy Ward said: “Gym owners have put in place regimental structures to not only make their business safe but to have contact tracing measures in place. Gym users have been compliant to these.

“Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. Routine and exercise are incredibly important to maintaining good mental health, and this will be particularly difficult during a winter lockdown with the onset of dark nights and bad weather.”

Like other gyms, self-defense groups, dance classes, and sports clubs, Kickstart invested heavily to extend their Brookfield Enterprise Centre premises, reduce class sizes, and implement government safety guidelines.

Dillon continued: “I got the premises beside us and we had 3,500 sq ft of space, 15 people in one room and six in another, based on 2m distancing. I had to pay staff for more hours, spend €1k a month on hand sanitiser, another €1k on contractors to clean the whole place down.

“My costs shot up, as busines stagnated, but that was ok until you got to the other side. It was torture. Every gym didn’t want to be the one who brought in cases. We did not have one single case of Covid.”

 Members of Kickstart joined together this week to make a plea to the Irish Government that they are an ‘essential service’ – recording their own thoughts for a video.

“It is almost taboo to ask questions,” said Dillon.

“If we do our job right, half of these mental health services won’t be needed. Our place is an outlet for people blowing off steam. We have some people who if they don’t do that, they are capable of murder! It is important that the government look at gyms.”

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