While mental health seems to have been at the forefront of conversation for some time now, it’s still a taboo subject in more traditional arenas.
And until recently, professional sport has been renowned for being a difficult space to talk about perceived weaknesses.
But that’s all (mercifully) changing.
To encourage their players to discuss their own mental health, the Rugby Players’ Association has just launched a campaign seeking to break the stigma around the topic.
‘Lift the Weight’ is helping to put players in touch with various mental health charities, as well as providing advice on topics ranging from ‘addictive behaviours’ to depression, anxiety and relationships.
One in four people in the UK will be affected by mental illness at some point – most commonly affected by depression and anxiety.
The RPA say that the pressures and strains that come with being a professional sportsperson are often a catalyst for mental health issues – which is why they’re urging them to take action.
And the direct approach obviously works: following a previous campaign last year, more rugby players contacted the RPA’s counselling service than ever before.
‘From coping with injury and intense pressure to perform week in, week out, to facing constant media scrutiny and meeting the high expectations of fans, players experience a unique set of pressures,’ says the RPA.
‘Despite a number of high-profile elite athletes speaking out about their own struggles with mental health, the stigma around these issues remains.’
The campaign site offers all RPA members 24/7 confidential counselling, provided by Cognacity.
Various high profile players are taking part in the campaign, including James Haskell, Jonny Wilkinson, Duncan Bell, and Matt Hankin.
Jono Kitto, who plays for the Leicester Tigers, says that at one point his depression left him suicidal.
‘I very much wanted to die…I didn’t feel any sense of hope that things were going to get better. It was really tough because I didn’t’ want to admit that I was struggling.
‘I didn’t know what that would mean for me as a male and my identity – but I got to a place where I was desperate and didn’t have a choice.
‘As soon as I had a conversation, I felt like all of a sudden I had a weight lifted off my shoulders because now I could walk through it with other people and it wasn’t just my own battle.’
He says that it was only when he started talking about his mental health with other people that he realised that perhaps it wasn’t the shameful “abnormal” thing he’d always considered it to be.
He also goes on to stress that the best way to support someone dealing with mental health issues is not to treat them any differently.
‘The last thing that I wanted to feel when I was depressed was that I was abnormal and different…treat (people living with mental health problems) exactly the same. Be there for them – ask them questions about how they’re doing and don’t take “I’m OK” as an answer.’
You can find a whole roster of interviews with other players on the #LiftTheWeight website.
‘Mental health issues can affect anybody at any time and, as I know from my own early retirement from playing, rugby players are no exception,’ said RPA Group CEO Damian Hopley.
‘We’re extremely grateful to our ambassadors for their openness and honesty in speaking out about their experiences of a subject that still carries stigma throughout society.
‘We believe this campaign will provide essential support to any of our members who need it, but will also inspire the wider public to be open about mental health and seek help if they are struggling in any way.’