The macho atmosphere of rugby has meant many players feel unable to speak about their stresses and struggles – but one campaign is aiming to smash the wall of silence surrounding mental health.
When top England international rugby league player Terry Newton killed himself, both the NHS and people within the sport realised that something needed to change.
Attitudes began to change gradually but when sport charity State Of Mind was set up in 2011, they were determined to finally get the message across that talking about mental health is okay.
Dr Phil Cooper, one of the charity’s co-founders, explained that one of the biggest problems was “the strong attitude, the idea of never showing any weakness”.
He said: “On a rugby pitch it’s instilled in them to not let the opposition see any weakness because you look to exploit any weakness in the defence of the other team. If players take that attitude into their lives away from the game, that can cause problems.”
One former player who learned the importance of talking about problems is Danny Sculthorpe.
The prop had just been signed for the Bradford Bulls when he injured his back during a weight-training session.
Danny Sculthorpe before his injury
The injury required spinal surgery and strong medication, which Sculthorpe became addicted to.
His contract with the Bulls was torn up without him ever having pulled on the jersey. He ended up losing his house and had no way of supporting his wife and two young daughters.
Sculthorpe told The Huffington Post UK: “It was then that I started suffering from depression. I couldn’t get the thought of suicide out of my mind. I did the typical bloke thing – I didn’t tell anyone and kept it hidden for a number of months. Things just got worse and worse inside and I came very close to ending my life.”
It was a conversation with his family that saved his life.
He said: “I was lucky enough that my family noticed a massive difference in me. They got me to open up and tell them what I was thinking and I finally did that. What a feeling that was. It felt like a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Sculthorpe sought the help of his GP, who put him on medication to help with his depression.
“That really helped,” he said, “but the biggest thing that saved my life was the Rugby League (the sport’s governing body).”
The federation put him in touch with Sporting Chance, a clinic for mental health issues founded by former Arsenal and England football captain Tony Adams, where Sculthorpe spoke regularly with a counsellor, who he remains in touch with.
He said: “If you feel like things are getting on top of you or that you might be depressed, down or just a bit stressed in work or your private life. If you keep things bottle up, they just fester. If I didn’t speak to my family that day, my kids might not have a dad. The thing that helped was talking… more than medication, more than anything.
“It’s not a weakness to talk about your feelings – it’s more of a strength.”
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Another former player who firmly believes in the power of talking is Jimmy Gittins.
In 2002, while playing Sharlston ARLFC, Gittins broke his neck in two places. He was left quadriplegic by the accident and wanted to end his life.
He said: “I basically asked my brother to put a pillow over my face and kill me. I can’t say I was really depressed or suicidal because I hadn’t had time to think about it, it was just the fact that when the doctor told me that I would never even sit up by myself, I just generally didn’t want to be here. I couldn’t see how a very fit, active young sportsman could find at the flip of a coin, it all stopped. I just decided I didn’t want to live that way and I didn’t want to be here.”
But with the support of his family, Gittins became determined to take a more positive view. He set himself small goals and found himself making steady progress and regaining some movement. He now supports State Of Mind’s efforts to get men talking about their feelings.
He said: “If your state of mind is strong, your body is just part of the tool. Even if you’re physically strong, you also have to be mentally strong.”
“Playing a team sport, you have to be somewhat mentally fit in order to get yourself in position for the game. But certainly for me, I also knew how to work in a team and that the people around me were very, very important. If you can share with those people, with your colleagues, teammates and mates, it can make a problem a lot less. I’ve always had that really good backing with family, friends and players. For me it played a massive part in my recovery.
“When we started State Of Mind, we found there was a big situation – where you’ve got alpha males, you’ve got to be very strong and it’s weak to be honest about things. The education sessions we do are to try to get people to understand that it is good to talk and it is okay to talk, to ask your mate or tell your mate that you’re not feeling so good. And just take that stigma down really.”
“As much as you’re looking after yourself physically, you must, must, must, understand that your mental strength and mental fitness is far greater than your physical. Look out for yourself. If you think you’re under pressure, if you think things aren’t quite right, then speak to your colleagues, friends or family. Let’s make sure those problems don’t manifest into something greater.”
State Of Mind now works to spread this message, through events such as sessions in schools and community clubs and educating people about issues like anxiety and depression.
Cooper, Sculthorpe and Gittins are all taking part in a challenge to hand-cycle 200 miles from Hull to Old Trafford in Manchester for the Steve Prescott Foundation, which helps injured rugby league players.