Hearts of darkness: Rugby’s battle with mental illness

Campaign to help rugby players with mental health problems is needed.

This is a story of suicides contemplated and committed; of black dog depressions, of sports people feeling so bad that they were aghast to wake in the morning and therefore, to be still alive; of living with schizophrenia, and other mental illness. Living with it for years, in silent suffering.

It has a more uplifting conclusion but that will be of little consolation to the families of Selorm Kuadey, the promising Sale player, or rugby league great Terry Newton. They are still coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones. So too on a local level, the family of Greg McHugh, of Maidenhead. Players interviewed here have suffered, and two have contemplated their own exit.

The Lift the Weight campaign by the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), launched tomorrow, is a clarion call to all those affected, their families, and outside in the general public, to take action. It is arguably the most important move made by the RPA since its beginnings at the start of the professional game, under Damian Hopley, the chief executive who had his own issues on the transition from playing to retirement.

Calls to its confidential 24/7 helpline for mental illness problems are at an all-time high. Lift the Weight is reaching out to get them to do what so few people do – to talk about the problems, to seek help, to use the medical and counselling services available, to share the load. The RPA, and our interviewees, talk about “the stigma” as if mental illness is a sign of inner weakness, to be locked up tight inside.

Jonny Wilkinson remembers looking at spectators and envying their enjoyment of rugby and life. We all wanted to be Jonny. Jonny sometimes wanted to be us. Gareth Thomas remembers the mental pressure of being gay in an often homophobic sport. It’s not always been so easy to access therapy that specialises in LGBTQ+ as it is today, but with the help of companies such as Citron Hennessey, we’re getting there. At the time, we all wanted to be Gareth. Gareth sometimes wanted to be us.

It is now almost four years since Bath’s rugby squad were summoned to a meeting in one of the rooms at Farleigh House, their training HQ outside Bath. Kane Palma-Newport, then an emerging prop, recalls the occasion. “Nobody had a clue what it was all about,” he says.

Then, the giant figure of prop Duncan Bell entered the room. Bell had been at Bath for many seasons and won five caps for England. He was popular, and central to the mickey-taking culture that is part of all rugby teams.

Bell paused. “Even until the time I walked into that room I had doubts about what I was doing. I felt that the lads would feel let down by me,” he says. He carried on. He was coming out, at last, as ill. He explained that he had been suffering from serious depression and anxiety for many seasons, exaggerated by a marriage break-up although not essentially caused by it. He said that he had often felt at the end of his tether.

“Nobody had a clue,” Palma-Newport said. He is close to mental illness, because three of his family suffer from schizophrenia. “We all looked at each other in horror because of the jokes we’d had at Duncan’s expense. Then he said that the banter was all that kept him going.” After a long series of what Bell describes as “man-hugs” the group left the room to begin a training session.

As Bell recalls: “As usual, we started with a game of touch-rugby to warm up. Almost as soon as we started, Olly Barkley shouts out, ‘Lads. Let’s get Belly in for a try or he might start crying’. It was perfect. It broke the ice for me and was just what I needed.”

Nobody is claiming that rugby makes you more susceptible to mental illness than other environments but it does have danger areas. There are the almost impossible standards which players impose on themselves. Jono Kitto, the young New Zealander who has just signed another contract at Leicester Tigers, suffered years of depression because of his merciless attitude to his own game.

Danielle Waterman found that her status as World Cup winner with England in 2014 did not in any way quench her desperation for self-improvement. With the Olympics on the horizon she suffered a serious injury – she had already had seven operations, six of them reconstructions. She battled on in endless rehabilitation, and it was only later that she was diagnosed with a severe depression bought on by frustration.

Another frustration that these players feel is the lack of support they get from the NHS and GPs. The general consensus is that the government doesn’t fund mental health services enough so there simply aren’t enough resources to help everyone that needs them.

On top of this, there is a growing call for marijuana to be legalised in the UK as it has been proven to help those with mental illnesses as it can reduce stress and anxiety levels greatly. Looking at America, we are seeing an increasing number of states legalise the drug with Delta 8 gummies being one of the fastest-growing segments of the cannabis industry so people question why the legalisation of it in the UK is so far behind.

Overall, there is a severe lack of funding for mental health support and services and a growing call to legalize cannabis. Not only for the pain relief and the mental calming effect it has but also because there are so many ways to take it as well to suit each person, you can click here for some examples. These rugby players aren’t the only athletes that feel this way, either. Lots of sportsmen and women feel like they’re alone when fighting their mental health problems.

Yet before anyone can admit to problems, they have to admit them to themselves. Ollie Phillips, one of the world’s great sevens players, could not accept that he was ill. “There was no way. This can’t be me. This is not who I am. I can sort anything, it will always be all right,” he says. Phillips and Bell had enormous difficulty making the transition from playing to retirement.

The message of the RPA’s campaign is crystal clear – those suffering in any form should talk about it, confide in friends and family, and seek out the right medical and counselling services. It can also often be useful to take a step back from the sport. It is a job, after all, and if someone feels they are unable to do their job as a result of career-related depression, it is is important to take a break from it. There are many support avenues an employer can give if an employee decides to take this route, but there are also other options. Any employee, whether they are a rugby player or a checkout assistant, can get a long-term disability quote if they are unable to work for a significant period as a result of depression. This can help them on to the road to recovery, providing financial stability as they take time off.

James Haskell is another who spoke. It was surprising to hear from the big man of confidence issues in his youth. But Haskell has been seeing a sports psychologist since he was 19. “If I hadn’t I would not be playing rugby at the level I am,” he says.

The escape route for all is now there. “We are offering the necessary support to enable our members to enjoy a happy and healthy life both on and off the field,” says the RPA Mission on Mental Illness. “We want them to Lift the Weight. These men and women are our heroes, after all. They, and we, must stay well.”

Control of the mind

Wilkinson’s intensity, his passion for something approaching perfection in his kicking and his game, brought its own downside. In his book and last week, he described dark moments. The 2003 World Cup winner believes that it eventually reached a stage where too much of his life, indeed almost all of it, was dependent on a rugby result.

‘As a young guy I grabbed onto those kind of beliefs that meant that winning was amazing. It made me strong and made me happy, and made me feel right in this world. Losing made me a failure and made me regretful, and a bit lost. The more those factors split and became further apart, the more I was desperate to be in one and so afraid of the other.’

Eternal struggle: Wilkinson tried to tap into a “network of good people” to deal with his issues

He talks of tapping into his network of good people as a coping strategy, to change his outlook so that the rugby result became less important. ‘It’s about finding a thread to follow to become the most fully-fledged version of me – as opposed to trying to meet every expectation and therefore not becoming the best version. My experience of mental health at the moment is that I have regained control of my mind and therefore regained the choice of life that I’d like to live.’

He offers advice for those who feel that teammates are having serious problems. ‘It is their reality, not yours. As soon as you go in there with strong beliefs you’re going to find conflict. You have to give them the space and have no judgment, and not think that you know the answer. Just let them know that you are right there with them and make sure that you listen.’

Two rooms of pain

Kitto’s story begins with a ghastly misunderstanding with his father, way before he came to England from New Zealand to play scrum-half for Leicester. “When I was about 12, if I didn’t play well or missed a few tackles, my father would not speak to me for the rest of the day. The way I saw it was that just a few mistakes in a game affected how he viewed and loved me. So I decided that was the way everyone was, and that I had to be perfect to keep people loving me.

“For the next six or seven years, I was anxious all the time about everything in my life. I was performing at the top level academically and in sport, but at a cost. When I got to 19, my brain was in a place where I couldn’t cope with the stress I was under. It just snapped. It got to a stage one June when I was beside myself when I woke up because I wanted to be dead. Yet I am very close to my family, and I have a Christian faith and knew I could not take that route.”

Kitto would finish a training session, be “happy-go-lucky in front of people then go back to the car and burst into tears. Something was seriously wrong.”

Eventually, he knew that he had to talk to his father about what had happened when they sat alone in different rooms after games. “Dad was devastated when I spoke to him. He is a very honest man and wouldn’t make anything up. He said he was terrified that if I played poorly he would say something too emotional that would hurt my feelings. So we had both stayed silent.”

Gradually, Kitto began to talk to people around him but was still too stubborn to seek professional help. When he told one close friend about his depression and anxiety, the friend did not believe him.

In his first session with a counsellor, when he was at Bay of Plenty in the ITM Cup, the counsellor told him to look into the mirror and tell himself he was a good player. He could not even do that. Finally, he stopped trying to “think my way out of it”.

When he signed for Leicester, he increased the visits to the counsellor to get himself well for the UK. “The fact that I could talk about it, not feeling that it was something shameful and weak and that I could help others experiencing similar problems – it has helped so much.”

Kitto has played 24 times for Leicester since 2015 and loves being part of the Tigers family. His mother and father came from New Zealand to watch him play against Worcester. In front of a packed Welford Road, he scored a try and was man of the match. Last week, he signed a new contract.

A pre-emptive strike

Little things: Haskell used music to try and calm himself and boost his confidence before games

As ever, Haskell, the England flanker, was fully prepared. “Mental health is something that I have always taken seriously. When I was about 19 at Wasps I was struggling with confidence and doubting that I was worthy to be there. I saw Dr Gill Owen, who helped me, and I have been seeing her all my career. She also gave me the ability to use music as a tool to prepare for games, and I started to believe in myself.”

The relationship has been hugely beneficial. “I have a lot of tools that I can use if I’m having a bad day, not feeling particularly confident or getting hammered in the media or social media.

“I also think that things in our head are 10 times worse than the reality. Some people are a lot more understanding and forgiving if you sit down and actually talk to them. It’s important to find the right people and the right moment. The individual has to be comfortable to open up and take the leap of faith.”

In for the long haul

The first problem in what was an agonising transition for Phillips from Sevens star to retired player lay in the lack of diagnosis. To this day, he is not certain what it is in his calf which stopped him playing. “I was looking at the medical people and thinking, ‘you are paid to have the knowledge. How can you not know what is the matter with me?’ I’d had a clear plan. I wanted to go to the Olympics and spent a year of frustration trying to get fit, which culminated in me being told that it was all over.”

The end of the glamorous years as a player, and of the certainties and confidence of his old life, hurt badly. He had been so driven in his play that he even found the lows of losing addictive. He became a person he did not like.”I was on a bit of a self-destruct course, there were bad things that happened in my life but at the time I just brushed them off and moved on. Eventually, I realised I was going to be a lonely man because I hurt people around me, and ruined relationships.”

The wheels started to come off. His girlfriend at the time was pregnant but lost the baby. “It then began to spiral out of control. I realised that my behaviour in the six months preceding was shocking. I was digging my own grave and making it 10 times worse by chasing a dream that I could not have again.” He also fell out with his father and they stopped speaking.

Partly to replicate the feeling of team bonding and closeness, he agreed to take part in the Clipper Round the World Race. He found it exhilarating. Then for charity he helped organise a rugby match – at the North Pole, which was another massive expedition and, again, one that he enjoyed.

But he had already realised that something was seriously wrong. “I was just running away from stuff, trying to fill my life with distraction so I don’t have to think about the ultimate problem, whatever that was. I got to a point where I was thinking of suicide. I was so depressed that I really didn’t know what to do. I had no idea of how to get myself out of the rut and all I could see around me was boredom.”

The day after returning from the North Pole he began a new job with PricewaterhouseCoopers. “I thought I would throw myself into a new challenge but the reality was that when I got there, I said to myself: holy f***! What am I doing here? This is a car crash waiting to happen, I am way out of my comfort zone. Everything that was familiar to me in the past wasn’t there anymore.”

Eventually, he rang Caroline Guthrie of the RPA. “I told her that I was struggling and didn’t know what to do. She put me on to a therapist at Cognacity. I still go once a week and from where I was last February to where I am now, there is a vast difference. I’ve still got a long way to go, but feel a bit more secure.

Living alongside schizophrenia

Three close relatives of the Bath prop were diagnosed with schizophrenia. “My Gran was paranoid schizophrenic, she was heavily medicated, and had lobotomies and electrocutions through the brain.

“With my cousin, his paranoia was drug-based. He got the paranoid symptoms that are well-documented with smoking cannabis. I went to visit the place where he was once sectioned, and could not come to terms with the fact that a family member was in a shocking place like that.

“My sister was almost bipolar so she’d flip in between two different states. She could be very happy or very sad. When it came out, it was an explosion of hate and upsetting words that broke down relationships.

“If you asked my sister, who unfortunately I have no relationship with any more, she would not know she was ill. That caused so much friction. It’s sad because she took herself to Australia to get away from the family, took her husband and kids and since they’ve been in Australia, I hear that her husband has divorced her and taken the children.

“The only way I’d say it’s affected my rugby is in a positive way. I’ve had low times as a player and I’ve known that when I’ve been down, there is a lot further down to go. I knew that in the grand scheme of things, I am all right.

Palma-Newport’s cousin, once sectioned in hospital, is in a better place. He is just qualifying as a psychiatric nurse. “I am so proud of him.” Palma-Newport was in the Bath squad who played Harlequins yesterday. His mother and father attend every game.

A question of balance

Two seasons ago, Matt Hankin, one of the most promising players in England, played in a pre-season game for Saracens. He took a blow from behind which he described as “more of a whiplash injury”. He has not played since.

The blow ushered in a horrendous sequence – the initial concussion did subside after six weeks but the blow had actually affected his whole balance system. “I have had to retrain that. The only way I can describe it is that your eyes and inner ear, which you use for balance, are suddenly all out of kilter. Six times a day I do things you would hardly imagine – walking backwards and forwards looking at the ceiling, looking at the floor, really, really odd stuff. At times I felt that my physio, Laura Tulloch, who’s been amazing, was playing a joke on me.”

The long period of rehabilitation has taken its toll. He has spent much time on his own, feeling detached from rugby and also, occasionally, from life. “It messes your emotions. I have had some pretty dark times. I used to go to the club and think I was a bit better and then react badly to a simple thing and would go home and break down. I had no idea if I was going to live a normal life, and socialise with my friends again. It was incredibly confining.”

The first to speak

Duncan Bell was the first player of his era to reveal his mental illness, an act of true courage. His great propping pal, David Flatman, was the only person who ever knew the agony of what Bell was going through.

But after he had spoken to the Bath players, as well as having feelings of relief, his problems multiplied. His post-career job in finance failed to materialise when the company for some reason cancelled the appointment, leaving him still holding his copy of the signed contract. He also admits to financial problems and the pressures of keeping in close contact with his four children by a marriage which ended in divorce.

He was already having counselling. In the early stages, he also took medication. “I was adamant that I wanted to be off the drugs, I did not want to be reliant on anything,” he says. “As soon as I got to six months I told the doctor that I wanted to get off them. Then I realised that I was sliding back and went back on them for another six months. I felt weak going back on them, just like the old feelings.”

Similar problems: Duncan Bell said he believes that depression is a little like alcoholism

Gradually, he has recovered, becoming a much-admired figure. “I have had a lot of calls from people who have read articles and from fellow professionals who have asked my advice. It’s not good to hear they have problems but cool to think they are opening up.”

He believes that depression is a little like alcoholism. “The analogy is that you are never cured but always recovering, and I think back to the depression and anxiety that I suffered and that is a very good way to describe it.

“I still monitor myself on a daily basis. But I feel great. I know that depression is not a sign of a weak person. I went through a hell of a time but then when I went to see the doctor and a counsellor, it all started to make sense.”

Duncan Bell and his girlfriend Katie have a son, Zander, aged three. He now works for Chartwell Funding as a mortgage adviser. He coaches at Chipping Sodbury, his local club, after some time as coach at Lydney. He occasionally turns out for them in the second row.

Chasing the cure

England’s 2014 World Cup-winning full-back is ferociously dedicated. She has had to be: ‘I have had seven operations in seven years, six of them reconstructions. The most recent was an MCL [medial collateral ligament] reconstruction. I never wanted to be that player that came back not quite the same, so I’d always push myself harder and harder. With the MCL it was really tough. It took me five months to be able to walk down the stairs pain-free and all this was getting into the start of the 2016 Olympic season, and I was desperate to go to Rio.

‘The day I went in to have my brace taken off I sent out a tweet saying how excited I was to be out of the brace. But then they sent me to see the surgeon and he told me that things were still wrong. He said that he needed to see me the next morning, and not to eat anything from midnight.’

The rehabilitation had to start from scratch and improvements became horribly hard to detect. The week she was supposed to spend in hospital turned into four and a half months. ‘The pain was horrendous, and I was expected to rehab five times a day seven days a week.’

One day, driven to distraction by the lack of progress, she wrote a letter of retirement from rugby, and the memory of writing that missive on her phone upsets her to this day. Waterman was a world champion, but it did not feel enough. The Olympics seemed gone.

She went to Jean Watson (‘a great lady’), operations manager at Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, who realised that something else was at work, and also saw a new doctor. She was smiling as she told him of all her physical woes, but crying at the same time. ‘He thought that was quite a feat. Eventually, they realised why I was not making progress. They told me that mentally, I was not happy; not giving myself any space to buy into what I was doing. I met the team at Cognacity [experts in mental well-being] and they diagnosed severe depression. The psychologist I worked with then was outstanding.’

She stopped seeing the psychologist at one stage, but realised that she had left too early. When she returned he told her that he had been waiting for her to book an appointment and knew that she would.

In her first tournament back after completing the rehab in physical and mental terms, Waterman broke her cheek in three places and had to have it reconstructed. But that, comparatively, was a small problem. Both parts of the rehab went faster when they were linked together.

Waterman returned to full fitness in time to be in Rio. She scored one of England’s tries against Wales in the Six Nations win last time out.

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