PRESTON Campbell briefly searches for the right phrase. “It’s not spoken about a lot, is it?” says the 2001 Dally M Medallist. “It’s not like it’s … in the Rugby League Week or something.”
Well, now it is.
The issue at hand is mental illness and its toll in our game. To say that it is “topical” is obscenely trivial and callous. But that’s the reason this feature is “in the Rugby League Week” now, and not last week or next month.
On February 28, Wests Tigers forward Mosese Fotuaiki took his own life after being injured at training. On March 4, Hull halfback Brett Seymour was hospitalised after crashing his car in what his wife strongly suggested on Facebook had been a suicide attempt.
The second incident, particularly, struck a chord with the recently-retired Campbell. He has always stopped short of spelling out what he had been trying to do when he crashed his own car into a tree at Christmas, 2002.
But when asked about the plight of Seymour, who had recently been dropped from Hull’s senior squad, he says: “Well, you know my story – I did the same thing at a time in my life when I felt I couldn’t cope.
“Some car crashes can be avoided.”
Mental health issues in rugby league aren’t discussed widely because they’re not easy to discuss. But increasingly, those touched by the illness feel they have a responsibility to say something. It might save a life.
Campbell’s chief executive at the time of his crash, Shane Richardson, says: “Driving up there to Lismore that day – it was the worst day of my life.
“I still remember the empty feeling. I thought Presto was dead.”
A lifetime in football has taught Richardson the danger signs. “I remember the first time it ever came up, the first time we every thought about mental health in a football club I was part of.
“A fellow came to training one night with a snake around his neck. Everyone laughed about it … a few weeks later he had taken his own life.”
Men in their late teens and early 20s often stake their entire self-identity in their careers, Richardson observes. Their extended families rely on them for an income. An injury or demotion to reserve grade can be devastating – and as adolescents they lack the life experience to put such setbacks in perspective.
“I don’t think our coaches realise what impact they have on young peoples’ lives,” said Richardson. “Our players hang on coaches’ every word.”
Our game is not sitting on its hands in the face of this silent scourge, of course. NRL welfare officer Paul Heptonstall says there are at least two staffers at every club trained dealing with mental health issues – and there are plans to train more.
“I am pretty sure I was the first club welfare officer in the competition when I started with Wests Tigers at the time of the merger,” says Heptonstall, related to Warrington’s Monaghan brothers through marriage.
“I had no idea what I was doing.”
Eventually, though, Heptonstall found his feet. “The first challenge was to destigmatise it – to get past this attitude of ‘oh, harden up, will you?” he recalls.
“The next step was to encourage the people affected by this to take the appropriate action, to spot the signs and not be afraid to seek help.
“One in five people are going to be affected by metal health issues in their lifetimes – that’s a pretty big percentage. I know people who have taken their own lives.”
The NRL works closely with the Black Dog Institute, which works hard to help members of the public identify forms of clinical depression. The Institute runs compulsory workshops for NRL players and officials.
In England, Test hooker Terry Newton’s 2010 suicide after becoming the first athlete in the world suspended for the use of Human Growth Hormone led to the establishment of State Of Mind, a charity that soon had a Super League round named in its honour and a series of powerful videos promoting the idea that problems are there to be discussed rather than hidden.
Designated welfare officials within NRL clubs are bound by a code of ethics which prevents them from sharing information with the coaches or team-mates of those who come to them for help.
“We’d like to get to the point where all trainers and strappers have training in these issues,” said Helptonstall, “so they can see the signs as well.”
Campbell, Andrew Johns Matt Cross, Owen Craigie and Scott Hill all help with the NRL’s program.
Fotuaki gave no indication he was struggling with the expectation surrounding his likely promotion to the NRL side this year. Seymour was moved to tears by the number of fans who joined a Facebook group called “Brett Seymour, Get Well Soon”.
Last week in RLW, Sharks caretaker coach Peter Sharp said he feared for the wellbeing of some players caught up in the ASADA investigation.
But while rugby league applies the pressures associated with many of these problems, the support network it provides can also be part of the solution.
“I’ll always be grateful to my mate and coach, John Lang,” Campbell says of the weeks and months after his Christmas, 2002, car crash.
“He grabbed me by the ear and dragged me in to see a counsellor. I was sceptical at first about the whole thing – but I can tell you that it really helped.”
But young footballers about to enter first grade and older stars who have fallen out of favour are not the only groups affected by depression.
Australian Hill and Englishman John Skankevich have each spoken about the desolation that comes with retirement and dealing with the fact the biggest single component of your life is gone.
Injury forced Stankevich to retire at just 25, creating a financial nightmare for him and his family. “I’ve had bailiffs knocking on my door, my house repossessed and I had to hand back the keys to the bar that I bought,” he said.
“Young players simply must think before they put all their eggs in one basket – and I should know.”
Hill told NRL.com in 2011: “It got to the point where I was struggling to get motivated to even go out with the kids. My wife ended up putting me in front of the computer and said ‘have a look at these symptoms of depression’… and I had eight out of the 10.”
Campbell escaped serious injury from his car crash and went on to win a premiership under Lang at Penrith the very next season.
“These things only help you if you are willing to accept their help,” he says. “Pressure to perform and the pressure for financial security – it plays on your mind.
“I think it’s important for Brett Seymour to know he’s not alone, that others have gone through what he is going through. I can’t comment on his specific circumstances and but if he is suffering from anything – I’m not even going to use the term ‘mental illness’ – then he needs to see someone as soon as possible.
“Footballers are put on a pedestal. People say they are “superstars”, they’re famous and people look up them. I think we forget that they come from somewhere, they’re someone’s brother, someone’s son.
“And sometimes we players forget it as well.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK