Three-Rugby-Players-Holding-BallOn Sunday 19 February 2017, the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) launched ‘Lift the Weight’, its online hub and campaign, that ‘aims to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues and offer the necessary tools and support to enable our members to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling life, both on the field and off it.’.

The campaign is being supported by high profile former and current England players, including Jonny Wilkinson and James Haskell, who share their own experiences of mental health issues in a series of videos on the RPA’s hub.

In its press release, the RPA highlighted a sobering statistic: one in four people in the UK will be affected by mental illness in any particular year.  The RPA also explained that its counselling service had seen a 130% increase in calls from players following a former campaign fronted by the Bath and England prop Duncan Bell who gave an open and courageous interview in 2012 telling of the severe (and character altering) depression that he had suffered throughout his life. That is a staggering increase and suggests there may be many rugby players suffering mental health problems in silence.

In this author’s opinion, this is hardly surprising. When we watch the Six Nations this coming weekend, or any sporting event for that matter, it is all too easy to forget the person behind the player and to focus on (and delight or despair in) their performance. That is, of course, natural human behaviour. In many cases we, as fans, judge athletes solely on those performances and fail to accept that they are first and foremost human beings. We are not alone. Many athletes define themselves and base their self-worth entirely on how they have performed on a particular day or in a particular match. Anyone who has been an athlete (of any level) will understand the euphoric highs or terrible lows that such an approach can result in; your moods and your opinion of yourself become solely dependent on whether you have won or lost.

More generally, it is also true that mental health issues in society still carry an associated stigma that make people reluctant to talk about their own mental health and, conversely, uncertain as to how to deal with a disclosure about it.  Further, persons who have had the courage to speak up have reported that the discrimination they faced having done so made them, understandably, feel worthless or isolated. Combine those elements with additional sport specific pressures including: performing with the weight of a nation or club’s expectations on your shoulders; omnipresent news, fan and media commentary and/or analysis of your every tackle, pass or shot; and the expectation that you will never show weakness or admit failure, and it is all too easy to see why professional sport can a hot bed for mental health problems.

Mental health issues can arise in athletes at any time in their career and range from on the pitch issues (e.g. injury or transition) to off the pitch issues (e.g. a breakdown in relationships). They can also arise in any number of sports:

  • Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff (the former cricketer) revealed in 2012 that he had suffered from depression and alcohol related problems during his career;
  • Ian Thorpe (the former swimmer and five time Olympic Gold medallist) entered rehab in 2014 to address his depression and alcohol related issues that he had suffered throughout his career; and
  • Dame Kelly Holmes (the double Olympic Gold medallist) revealed in 2005 that she had slashed her body with scissors one year prior to the Athens’ Olympic Games as a result of the fear that she would never fulfil her potential.

Against this backdrop, it is great to see an organisation such as the RPA raising the profile of and providing support for mental health issues in rugby players. A huge amount of credit must also go to the players (current and former) who have chosen to speak out about this issue. In this author’s opinion, they have become instant role models for rugby players who have or who may be suffering from mental health issues. One would hope that their efforts, together with RPA’s Lift the Weight campaign, will be able to effectively reduce the number of rugby players who suffer in silence and, further, inspire other sports to provide similar support services to their athletes.

Professional sport is ruthlessly competitive, athletes are warriors and the media coverage and fans’ never-ending passionate support have helped make sports what they are today (including making professional sport a viable career option in the UK). In this author’s opinion that need not change; but it’s time to make sure that athletes are equipped with the tools to positively handle the associated mental pressures of a career in professional sport.