13 Oct 2012

Rugby stars tackle mental health ‘stigma’

Think a rugby league pitch is the last place where men would talk about feelings? Think again – a mental health campaign has taken root in the sport and could be a template for raising awareness.

Rugby stars tackle mental health 'stigma' (Getty)

One year ago, mental health professionals and rugby league chiefs got together to launch a campaign: State of Mind.

Set up after the tragic suicide of Wigan and England player Terry Newton, the campaign aimed to raise awareness of mental health issues within rugby league.

In a sport where admitting any kind of weakness is seen as anathema, it was a risk. But 12 months later, State of Mind has delivered mental health training to 372 players, coaches and support staff at every club within the top flight of rugby league.

The campaign has even been extended to teams within the championship leagues and this season a new programme of mental health awareness will also be rolled out to all amateur clubs within the north west.

You don’t have to go cuddling people, you can just offer the hand of a mate. Jimmy Gittins, former rugby league player

Now advocates hope it can go further, and have launched a new awareness drive in the wake of last weekend’s Super League Grand Final.

Jimmy Gittins is a former professional rugby league player who was forced to retire after breaking his neck in 2002. He was declared quadriplegic – a time in his life he described as “bleak to say the least” – but with support and determination managed to rebuild his life.

Read more: Sporting stars' deaths raise concussion fears

“I initially found it very difficult to accept help – I was quite stubborn and against it,” he told Channel 4 News.

“But it comes to a point where you have to say, ‘I need that.’ And when I did it, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be and I got it in spades, and it made my life 100 per cent better.”

He hopes that State of Mind can provide support for others who are struggling, whether after injury or not, in part by changing the perception that tough guys don’t ask for help.

“The stigma’s always been there, it’s a macho sport – but that said, you don’t have to go cuddling people, you can just offer the hand of a mate. If we can help one person then our job is done, but we’d like to think it can go further. Where it could lead is endless – personal issues are a higher priority now in every sport,” he said.

The campaign has already had backing from other sports stars, including football’s Roy Keane and Paul Merson as well as top snowboarder David Pitschi and the world’s number one surfer, Joel Parkinson.

The aim now is that the campaign expands into the wider world.

Paul Sculthorpe, an iconic ex-rugby league player who captained Great Britain and St Helen’s – once described as the David Beckham of rugby league – is a State of Mind supporter.

“The game’s changing and the world’s changing – people shouldn’t be embarrassed about asking for help or putting an arm around someone and saying do you need help,” he told Channel 4 News.

Mental fitness not mental illness

Campaigners hope that raising awareness within the sport will feed into the wider rugby league community. One in four people are affected by mental health issues at some point in their lives, and suicide rates in the super league catchment areas are higher than the national average.

Government figures also show that suicide is the most frequent cause of death amongst males aged between 35 and 49 – and stress that many men would not approach their GP even if they were in crisis.

“If there are players, fans or people involved in the game who are suffering in the same way and they see top players getting this support, then I’m sure they will follow it as well,” said Mr Sculthorpe.

Phil Cooper, a registered mental health nurse who developed the education awareness sessions which are being delivered as part of State of Mind, agrees.

“We are trying to taylor the message around mental fitness rather than mental illness. Build your mental fitness so you can deal with the ups and downs,” he told Channel 4 News.

“I think the fact that people want to go to sport but not to a mental health session is important. It’s applicable in lots of different arenas – for example young people going off to university for the first time, they can feel isolated. There are sports clubs there – and I think the fact that people want to go to sport and not to mental health issue sessions is important. It’s about changing the way you deliver an intervention, to where someone wants to be not where they don’t want to be.”

Rugby players sporting State of Mind t-shirts (Harlequins)