A recent study estimates that almost a quarter of rugby league players are vulnerable to mental health problems. Chris Bond reports.
WHEN Stevie Ward made his Super League debut for Leeds Rhinos at the age of just 18 he was tipped as a future star.
The Morley-born player was seen as the long-term successor to the mighty Kevin Sinfield after catching the eye in some notable matches, including the Challenge Cup final at Wembley in 2012.
The following year, though, his season was cut short when he suffered a badly dislocated shoulder. After a frustrating spell on the sidelines he returned to action in 2014 but felt he wasn’t firing on all cylinders. “When I returned I was playing OK but I wasn’t playing to the level I was at before. I wasn’t reaching my potential,” he says.
It sent him on a downward spiral. “You hear people talking about having a black cloud hanging over them and that’s what it was like. I ended up in a dark place,” he says. “As a Super League player your whole life is about playing and training and when I felt I couldn’t play to the level I expected of myself it hit my sense of self-worth.”
He ended up on anti-depressants for a few months but says the club rallied around. “The club was really good. I went to see the doctor and I was able to talk openly about how I was feeling.”
Since then he’s worked on changing his mindset. “I’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time but I’ve learnt not to get carried away with the highs and not to worry too much about the lows,” he says.
Five months ago the 22 year-old launched Mantality – an online lifestyle magazine – which combines articles on everything from how to deal with stress to travel articles.
“As a player you have so much idle time and I felt I needed to do something else to invest my energy in, rather than hanging everything on rugby league. I’ve always been interested in writing and literature and I’ve really enjoyed working on this, it’s got a self-affirming, positive ethos,” he says.
Rugby players are recognised as some of the toughest people in sport but a major recent study into the mental health of rugby league players, carried out by researchers at the University of Huddersfield, estimates that almost a quarter of current players are vulnerable to problems like depression.
It’s something high on the agenda of the Rugby Football League (RFL), the game’s governing body, and since 2015 all Super League and full-time Championship teams are obliged to employ part-time Player Welfare Managers (PWMs).
The rugby league world was left devastated by the tragic death of Terry Newton, the former Rhinos, Bradford Bulls and Great Britain hooker, took his own life in 2010.
Leeds Rhinos legend Barrie McDermott was a close friend of Terry’s and says his death made people in the sport sit up and start thinking about depression and mental health.
“His friends and a lot of people who knew Terry thought if this could happen to someone like him it could happen to any of us,” he says.
“It still shocks me to this day. There’s a group of us who meet up on the anniversary and talk about him and share stories. We talk about what happened because we didn’t recognise the signs at the time.”
In 2011 the charity State of Mind was launched in Terry’s memory and has since helped raise awareness of mental health issues among rugby league players and communities.
Barrie, a former player welfare manager with the Rhinos, says it’s important that players, and particularly ex-players, have support networks they can access. “The players are seen as very tough and strong willed, resilient men and that can sometimes make it hard to admit they have a problem. But mental health issues can affect anyone and people are starting to take more notice.”
Barrie says the sport is doing all it can with the resources it has. “It is being more proactive about this and it’s getting better each year. We need to visit as many rugby league clubs as possible and sit down with them and talk about mental health, how to recognise the warning signs and what to do if someone seems to be struggling.
“We need to try and fix the problem before it becomes unfixable, we can’t wait for another player to take his own life. We have to be proactive and rugby league is doing that.”
For Stevie Ward, who is back playing after his injury nightmare, it’s about raising awareness of a hidden illness that can afflict even the physically strongest among us.
“When we hear the words ‘depression’ and ‘mental health’ there’s still a stigma associated with them and it’s about changing that perception. And I think it is changing, people are more aware about the issues and they are opening up.”
He hopes others will realise they don’t have to suffer in silence.
“It can feel like you’re struggling to find light at the end of the tunnel but people need to know there is light and they can get better.”