When being tough is a man’s undoing

Footballers, and the toughest ones too, are more prone to depression than most. Here we look at the issue through the eyes of those who have been victims.

Former Penrith and Gold Coast star Preston Campbell struggled with depression.

It is a compelling statistic creating a gripping story. Three or four players in every rugby league team of 17, present or past, most likely suffer from some form of depression.

That’s the national average. Consider the gladiatorial aspect of their sport and the added pressure of scrutiny and weekly intensity, and footballers are regarded as being in a higher risk category.

Add the “after the cheering has gone” element that confronts once feted and pampered former NRL players, and we have an environment where 5000 men who are reading this story would have been touched by the illness, which has fortunately been largely destigmatised through the revelations of men like Andrew Johns, a bi-polar disorder sufferer, and others.

And that is the one ingredient that is the key to this important issue: taking that step of talking to overcome the prime impediment to salvation – keeping it to yourself, particularly because you might think of yourself as being weak in a footy world of ‘toughness’ and bravado.

Perhaps the key step of all is recognising and admitting you may be suffering depression and need the help, the communication, to deal with it.

Depression is an illness. Let’s not hide its full description – a mental illness – that does not discriminate. It can affect the big, the powerful, the famous and the presumably successful as much as anyone else … and at any time.

How do you detect depression? Everyone feels down at times but if a dark mood continues for more than two weeks or you have problems functioning for prolonged periods, you may be a sufferer. In most cases, people ‘bounce back’; however those with clinical depression lack the ability to pick themselves up from feeling down.

Symptoms of depression include: Feeling bad about yourself; changes in sleep patterns; changes in appetite or weight; feeling overwhelmed by pessimism, anger, guilt, irritability and anxiety; varying emotions throughout the day for example, feeling worse in the morning and better as the day progresses; not able to enjoy life; not so interested in sex; decreased tolerance for minor aches and pains; poor concentration and memory; low motivation to do things that used to matter to you or feeling exhausted.

Preston Campbell, who retired in 2011, now spends much of life in Indigenous welfare, mentoring youth and presenting himself as an example of how depression can hit but also be conquered. He says he can tell the signs in those who – like he did – present a façade to hide the onset of ‘the black dog’. And he sees it in rugby league.

He was just 15 months through the perceived peak of his career, winning the Dally M Medal in 2001, when he tried to take his life one lonely night. He says if it wasn’t for the care and insight of the man he says saved his life, coach John Lang who later led him to a premiership, he may not be here to tell of his story of a happy ending.

“I look back now what I went through and think it was stupid, it was silly, but it was serious,” Campbell reflects of his spiral prompted by something as simple as a change of coach and playing position at Cronulla that saw him doubt his capability of surviving in the NRL and unlock memories of continually being told he was too small to be worthy of a career he had dreamt of.

“It took just over a year to go from top of the world to a deep dark cold pit I couldn’t get out of, and it can happen just like that. I blamed others rather than myself and kept it to myself and didn’t understand I was neglecting my family and friends; I kept myself in a bubble and didn’t talk about my feelings.

“It was because I was afraid, and I was embarrassed. With footballers these days they have to have the tough exterior – look tough, act tough, be tough – but a tough person doesn’t get through this; a strong person does and there is a difference.”

He’d left to be reunited with his former Sharks coach Lang at Penrith but he admits the damage had been done in his relationships and his wife Lee left, with their two children (they now have three), relocating to Ballina with her family. It rocked him, and the fear of not providing for his family – a driving motivation in his NRL career – became his new seemingly insurmountable dilemma.

After a failed attempt at conciliation during a pre-Christmas trip to the north coast, Campbell surrendered to his demons and drove his car into a tree trying to take his life. He was taken by helicopter to hospital with a broken leg and chest injuries. The fortunate ending is that he and Lee were months later reunited and live happily on the Gold Coast and Preston learned to confront life’s issues – but only after the unexpected intervention of Lang.

He was at home alone one morning, still in his pyjamas, when there was a knock on the door and it was Lang who said “let’s go for a drive”. With no explanation about where they were headed, he ended up at the surgery of a clinical psychologist in Parramatta. Within minutes Campbell was in tears telling a stranger of his ordeal and had embarked on the road to recovery.

“The psychologist made me feel like I could get control of how I was feeling,” Campbell says. “I was fortunate that I was able to overcome it without medication and when I felt strong enough it became a big part of my healing; being able to talk to other people about it. I don’t have any trouble talking about it because it makes me feel happy and reminds me of where I was and that I never want to go there again and let myself be that person again.”

He is concerned for the young players of today, one of many alarmed at two Holden Cup players this year taking their lives, and he is conscious of cultural and family pressures that can often be at play. The NRL’s welfare and education manager Paul Heptonstall and his team are addressing the growing problem of depression, with the assistance of clinical psychiatrists from the Black Dog Institute, and has launched the State of Mind campaign.

Former international Scott Hill represents the category that may be more prevalent among Men of League members; those beset by depression post-career. And considering the more recent aspect of players coming out of the generation of full-time professionalism and having to contend with the Global Financial Crisis, it is an issue that is more common than meets the eye.

Hill confesses that he often can identify other footballers who suffer depression and will try to encourage them to get expert help. “It’s far more obvious to me now and it is more common than people realise,” he says.

Hill, who wants to follow the path of becoming a player manager, advisor and mentor, is one of many examples of those who have conquered the condition – he is no longer on medication – and is well placed to use his experience to assist others.

“It’s always been hard for men to speak about it but believe me once you take the first step it’s much easier to recover. Now I feel I’m in the space that I can get through anything now,” said Hill.

“Once you have an understanding you may not have to be on medication for the rest of your life and you can learn to deal with this, it can be very beneficial. For example I think it is important to continually train; I run every day, which helps clear my head a lot.

“In most cases it’s a chemical imbalance that you can mask when the body is producing endorphins from training and competing when you’re playing. But when that ends and other factors set in, whether it being financial or suddenly not being in the football environment, it can affect you.”

Wayne Wigham was a tall stylish winger-centre who played 170 first grade games with Balmain, Norths and Wests from 1976-85 and was once the competition’s top try-scorer but then, and since, he has battled depression.

Now he speaks to groups on behalf of the Black Dog Institute, more recently in the mining section where depression has become prevalent in circumstances similar to rugby league – supposedly tough men in a male-dominated environment, often away from family for long periods and under enormous pressure to maximise income while it is available.

Wigham, only well after his league career had ended, was diagnosed with melancholia, a form of depression that is caused by chemical imbalance and can only be treated by drugs. He recognises in hindsight that he suffered from depression throughout his playing years days; “I always felt sad as if a black cloud was hanging over me”.

“This continued long into my retirement but thought I was just being weak and being a whinger to myself,” he says. “I could not concentrate and left many jobs because I could not function properly. The fact that I was hiding how I felt caused me to become reclusive, which cost me relationships and some friendships as people think you don’t care anymore.

“I did not even realise until I bumped into John Brady [former journalist and now director of public affairs at the NRL] and he said he heard I had become a recluse. My personality had changed and I did not realise it.

“I then I got told by a friend I probably had depression. I sought help at the Black Dog Institute where I was finally diagnosed and treated.

“For the first time life became enjoyable. I wish I knew what was wrong with me much earlier and sought treatment. My message is if you feel down all the time or are only feeling OK when drinking or taking drugs, get help immediately. It can be treated and life can be OK.”

If you consider you may suffer from, or know someone who suffers from depression, it can be conquered but only be talking and by seeking the right expert help. Follow the links for The Black Dog and Beyond Blue, and Men of League has posted valuable reference material on the website that you can privately sift through in your own time and space on this important and potentially damaging problem and learn what to look for (the Black Dog website has a self-assessment test), how depression works and how to get help.

Should you need to talk to someone urgently about you mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

By Neil Cadigan

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When being tough is a man’s undoing