Ex-Leeds Rhinos captain Stevie Ward backs launch of new men's support group for Leeds hospital staff

Working as a manager in emergency preparedness during the Covid-19 pandemic at Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, David Goulding has witnessed first hand the intense conditions and pressures staff have been working under.

By Joanna Wardill
Tuesday, 30th November 2021, 8:44 am

After noticing that female staff members seemed more able to discuss how they were coping, the 43-year-old took it upon himself to help boost the well-being of the trust’s male workforce.

So on top of his day job in the abdominal medicine department, David has gone on to set up a men’s health and wellbeing group to provide an opportunity for men at LTHT to talk about topics relevant to their health in an open environment.

This Wednesday sees the official launch of the group, which has also secured the backing of ex-Leeds Rhinos captain Stevie Ward, who has been vocal in the past about his own struggles with depression and mental health.

David Goulding of Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust with Stevie Ward, former Leeds Rhinos Captain, meet for a podcast ahead of the men's group launch. Picture: James Hardisty

To coincide with the launch, David, who has played amateur rugby for over 20 years, had a sit down chat with Stevie, to encourage men to talk about their well-being and highlight the importance of being in a “band of brothers”.

David said: “Working for the NHS through the pandemic - something we’ve never seen before and probably will never see in this lifetime again - has left an amazing workforce of doctors, nurses, admin, porters, extremely exhausted.”

“I could see people struggling with their own mental health and resilience and vulnerability,” he added.

And the launch of the well-being group could not come at a more critical time, he told the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Leeds' Stevie Ward in action. Picture: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

“You hear all the time, especially through the news, about the difficult NHS winter ahead. That was always going to be the case but we are going to get it again and with rising Covid numbers. I think the staff are worn out - men and women.

“Men are less likely to talk about how they are feeling in general. So I think it’s really important that, with a third of the workforce at LTHT being men, we try to support them and help them get through what comes.

“It’s winter. It’s Christmas - that brings challenges as well.

“We just want to provide a platform for men to be able to talk about how they are feeling in a safe environment.

“There’s never been a group like this at LTHT and I think now is the right time to get it up and running.”

Stevie Ward lent his support to the group having long been a campaigner for men’s mental health.

He set up Mantality, a website exploring the issue, in 2016 after suffering depression following a series of injuries.

In January 2021 he announced his retirement from the sport, where he was captain of Leeds Rhinos, after struggling following two concussions in 2020.

He and David drew parallels between “macho” rugby league players and medics who are often “hard-wired” not to show their feelings.

Stevie said: “[We were] conditioned to go through pain, not complain about it, not talk about the tough stuff because you’ve got a job to do. I’m sure there are so many similarities there.”

In the sit-down chat, which has been shared exclusively with the Yorkshire Evening Post, Stevie recalled first suffering with his mental health at the age of 22.

“I had this meteoric rise. If you imagine the journey as a straight upward line on a graph. That was what my journey was in those early years. And then I had an injury - which was part of the game. I took that as yin and yang for the job and career I was in.

“But I visited both sides of that spectrum for a lot of the time.

“I was in pain a lot, struggling with injury and more and more I think because I had those episodes, I struggled mentally."

He said: "I needed to do something different. It wasn't just about getting right physically and getting back on the pitch, it was about doing the work on my own mental health and understanding it, addressing it and working on it.”

He said this work then became crucial in helping to deal with the “killer” moment of having to retire from the game in what was the prime of his career.

“I didn’t just have concussion and a brain injury, I had the bereavement. I had the grief of losing who I was, that identity gone," he said, adding: "I think I went through bereavement, denial, anger, depression, the bargaining and the acceptance. I still go through that now.”

Stevie said: “There’s a tipping point where men are going to start to confront mental health, they’re going to start working on it. Because we’ve got such an issue for men and discussing it and talking about. We need to make it accessible, we need to give entry points to it.”

He said Mantality launched to discover “everything about being a human being” and break the stigma in discussing men’s mental health.

“Once I started looking into this and started seeing the differences and benefits from it, I can't go away from it, I know the importance of it and I know the effect it can have when you’ve got a band of brothers, basically, that fully accept life and fully deal with what they’re scared to have been dealing with before,” said Stevie.

David said Stevie’s support and expertise has been a welcome boost for the well-being group - interest in which, he says, is going from “strength to strength”.

This Wednesday will kick the group off with a virtual drop-in day featuring a series of speakers and meet-ups on different topics of men’s mental and physical health, including fitness, alcohol misuse and community health.

And David, who has been working on the project with Jason Royal, from the trust’s HR team, hopes to roll it out to other hospitals across the region who have already expressed an interest in setting up similar groups.

Simon Worthington, the Trust’s director of finance, who is one of the group’s members, said: “Often men can be a bit shy about opening up about health and wellbeing issues important to us when we shouldn’t be.

“It’s important we are encouraging each other to talk about men’s health and this is a respectful and safe environment in which to do so.”

*Mantality has recently launched a counselling service and as well as a one-to-one coaching service, after partnering up with professional psychotherapist, Jon Bell.

For more information on Mantality visit: https://mantality.co.uk/Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United, With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe.