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League stars’ candour about mental health can help those in union

Attacking the line: Greg Inglis attacks for Queensland in last year's State of Origin Rugby World

More and more voices from elite rugby union are talking about mental health, but inspiration and encouragement can come from other fields too


IT WAS a story that caught so many off guard in Australia. A few weeks back, Greg Inglis, a star at the NRL’s South Sydney Rabbitohs and an athlete considered by some to be amongst the greatest players in any code, had checked himself into a mental health clinic. It was a big call to allow the news to filter out there.

After the news, Reni Maitua, ambassador for NRL’s State of Mind movement to raise awareness of mental illness, said: “This is Greg Inglis’s bravest act… admitting you need help is the hardest thing you can do. What he has done will save lives.”

At the moment, in union in England, the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) has their Lift the Weight campaign pushing for more understanding of mental illness, as well as providing information, contacts and even a few case studies.

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That aspect is important – the more recognisable, relatable faces you can learn from, the more impact a message can have. In the past when former England and Bath prop Duncan Bell opened up about his own experiences with depression – which Rugby World covered in February 2013 – the RPA experienced an increase in the number of players contacting their confidential counselling service, Cognacity.

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With Lift the Weight being pushed by various and varied voices like Jonny Wilkinson, James Haskell, Nolli Waterman and Netani Talei, they have the chance to encourage more players to seek help. This is particularly important as in the past, while Rugby World have been compiling investigation pieces, there have been fewer testimonials on issues like substance abuse, gambling or mental illness from within rugby union.

In researching our long read on painkiller use in rugby, I spoke with former NRL player Joe Williams – who has just signed a deal for his autobiography, Defying the Enemy Within – to see what union can learn from those in league who have opened up about their problems.

Back in the day: Joe Williams, playing for the Rabbitohs in 2004, will address drug issues in his book Rugby World

Williams explained that he would take “tray-loads of different prescription pills, anything that got me away from the terror in my mind”. As he clarified, Williams used prescription and recreational drugs and alcohol to dull the “voices in my head”. Before he came back from the brink, Williams would even attempt suicide.

Powerful stuff and worth hearing about, regardless of your sport. However, when asked what union could learn from elite league on the openness of athletes to admit they have a prescription painkiller problem, Williams replied: “It’s not just sport, it’s a societal issue.”

That is a specific example of an addiction. Nevertheless, mental health issues can affect one in four in the UK each year. It is a societal problem, too. No matter the sport, we have to applaud the candour of any top athlete willing to seek help. The more recognisable voices talking about mental health issues, the more likely we are as a society to open up.

To find out more, please visit https://therpa.co.uk/lifttheweight/

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