The shocking truth behind suicide in rugby

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK

Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women

As many as 42% of men aged 18 to 45 have considered ending their lives

Rugby – a sport littered with 6 foot and above, 21 stone plus athletes. These finely tuned sportsmen and women must endure 80 minutes of pure brutality. No one wants to look weak or like they are struggling on the pitch, and you’d think this would be the same off it too. Did anyone think Rugby players could go through mental health problems? They look too big and tough for ‘all that’? These athletes are at the top of their game, doing what they love doing – why would they be struggling?

This outlook was completely changed when the tragic news of Terry Newton rocked the world of Rugby. Rugby responded immediately, and now they are the pioneers in the sporting world for Player Welfare. When I see a 6 foot 7 bloke built of pure muscle talk about mental health, I certainly stop and listen.

The State of Mind charity was set up in 2011 following the tragic death of ex-Bradford Bulls, Wigan, Leeds Rhinos and Great Britain hooker Terry Newton. He hanged himself at his home in Wigan in 2010. Since then this tragic event has been linked to possible mental health struggles he might have experienced. State of Mind do fantastic work in visiting schools, community groups and sports clubs raising awareness of mental health issues and introducing fitness programmes which encourage people to think positively about themselves.

This has seen players address mental health in many ways. Halifax rugby league player Luke Ambler, launched the #ItsOkayToTalk campaign, which urges men to talk about mental health problems and has an aim to halve the rate of male suicides nationally over five years. Leeds Rhinos Stevie Ward set up an online magazine called Mantality, which aims ‘to inspire the everyday male to live a more comprehensive version of themselves; with their mind to be the first point of address.’ 

From reading articles on former players that have committed or attempted suicide, it appears they have similarities. It is not surprising when you stop and think about it. These players live in an artificial world during their playing career and once that comes to an end, for whatever reason, they are back into the real world without a lot of skills/experience. During their time as an athlete they may worry about injury, pressure to perform, pressure to meet their own expectations and disappointment at perceived failures.

Sean Long revealed how a battle with depression led to him contemplating suicide following retirement through injury. Dan James flew to Switzerland to a suicide clinic to take his own life following being paralysed when a scrum collapsed on him during a training session. Anthony Hughes took his own life after a long battle with depression led to the split of his relationship with his fiancée.

If we can build resilience to prevent common mental health conditions such as depression, the rate of suicide in men will hopefully decrease. The support that both Rugby Union and Rugby League offers their players has advanced to give players various avenues to go down to seek help and prepare for life after the sport. Combining this with the education around mental illness, the awareness of it and the great work these current and former professionals are doing, it’s fantastic to see how much positive work is being done.

Each club now has a Player Welfare Manager or Player Development Manager. They have Club Chaplains and Club Doctors that they can speak to in confidence. There are 24 hour/7 day a week counselling helplines available for players such as Cognacity and Sporting Chance. This allows them to talk to someone confidentially, away from the club, without feeling any pressure or expectancy to be at the ‘top of their game’. These provisions have been put in place to protect the players. The clubs plan and discuss career transition with their players, encouraging them to study or learn a trade on the side of playing so they are set up for when they retire from playing the sport. There really is an incredibly supportive atmosphere inside the clubs, associations, and with the players themselves.

Players need ongoing support throughout their career and Rugby are doing that. They are proactively making support readily available in different ways which will appeal to everyone within the sport. They have support links internally as well as externally of the club and if every sport followed what Rugby has done over recent years, it’s clear to see we will reduce the mental health problems athletes suffer during or after their career.

Let’s hope this work continues to kick start a revolution. If our sporting heroes are brave enough to talk openly about these issues maybe the rest of us can to. 

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Written by Mike Thomas, Head of Sports at Thrive Therapeutic Software Ltd.

Bronwyn SouthrenComment