By Troy Whittaker
From an outsiders’ perspective, Chris Leikvoll had a perfect life.
The year was 2002. Leikvoll was playing in the NRL for the St George Illawarra Dragons and building a home on the picturesque south coast of NSW with his pregnant wife.
Yet the six foot three, 121-kilogram front rower found himself crying uncontrollably on the floor of his parents’ house.
“I was injured at the time. I felt a bit crook and was wondering what was going on. I wasn’t sure, I had a few tests done. Back then I was thinking, ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’” Leikvoll, who played 115 first-grade games, revealed.
“Eventually I went through a series of anxiety attacks, which I’d never been through before, so it was difficult to cope.
“It spiralled a little bit and got to a point where I was withdrawing myself from groups and with friends, not leaving the house as much and getting emotional at times when I didn’t think I would be.”
It was initially difficult for Leikvoll to confide in his teammates and the people around him. Most didn’t comprehend what he was going through.
‘What reason does a professional footballer have to be worried and upset?’
“I probably shouldn’t have had any reason [by society’s standards]. I was doing what I loved, although I wasn’t playing at the time. But I was building a house and had a beautiful family,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure what brought on the anxiety.
“There was a bit of a stigma [around mental health issues]. I think a lot of people didn’t understand. There were a couple of times where I had anxiety attacks and had to withdraw from the group.
“They’d not so much laugh at me, but they didn’t understand what was going on. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on either … so I don’t blame them for that.
“It took me a while to open up about it but once I did I never looked back.”
Rugby league’s attitude towards mental wellbeing has improved considerably over the past few years. Leikvoll recently volunteered for the Men of League Foundation’s Tackling the Drought Tour alongside other ex-NRL players and was able to discuss his story openly with them.
“I know how to manage my anxiety now and it’s always good just to talk about it. I find that when I talk about it other people say, ‘Oh, okay. I didn’t realise you had that’ … It’s a big relief for me.
“So if I can help someone in any way by [having that conversation], it can only be a good thing.”
Leikvoll’s willingness to assist others is reflected in his mammoth effort to attend the Drought Tour.
A night shift coal miner in the Illawarra region, he hadn’t slept for more than 30 hours until he finally got to bed late on the first night of the trip – not before enduring a five-hour bus ride to Narromine and socialising with the locals.
“I got up Thursday [afternoon] at three o’clock for work and went to bed Friday night at 10:30 or something like that. But it was a good day, I enjoyed it,” he said.
“I managed to get through it by playing cards with the boys on the bus.”
Leikvoll shared a message of support for anyone struggling with mental health issues, especially those in isolated rural areas affected by the drought.
“Just speak to someone. It’s not embarrassing to say you’ve got a problem or an issue. It’s not your fault. It just happens,” he said.
“It might be something simple that triggers you. Being out there in the drought-stricken country, people are obviously doing it tough. [I’d encourage them] to speak to someone.
“Never think it’s too hard to speak up.”
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