Why the NRL is focusing on mental health and not just physical

There's an organisation out there working hard, with empathy, care, softness and compassion, to save the lives of its members and wider community, one by one.

It's the National Rugby League (NRL).

The NRL's third State of Origin match, a dead rubber, delivered an amazing display of spirit, toughness, athleticism, grit, fight, bravery, supreme fitness, skill, immunity to pain and a never-say-die refusal to give in – all such very manly qualities.

At its heart, that's what tribal Aussie rugby league is all about. You might be forgiven for thinking it might not be an environment where men talk openly about their fears and feelings.

Duty of care

But deep in the culture of the NRL, there's a passion-driven campaign to address the mental health of the men in its care, which is gaining momentum and genuinely saving lives.

"We do it because we can," says the NRL's Head of Culture and Community, Jaymes Boland-Rudder.

"There's an opportunity to be able to reach men and talk about mental health. We can remove stigmas, that talking about your mental health isn't a 'manly' thing to do."

He was talking to Executive Style on the launch last week of its new, 21-day mental health campaign, Road To Resilience, designed to help build positive mental strength.

It's part of the NRL's community programme, State of Mind, which is the NRL "using our voice, in consultation with Australia's leading mental health experts, to make a difference to a big issue that impacts our game and our communities – mental illness."


A unifying sport

The NRL's website says one in two people are affected by mental illness and "as Australia's biggest sporting community, we can and should play a pivotal role" in the mental health outcomes for the league community and beyond.

Six men kill themselves in Australia every day.

It's kind of beautiful. Deep in the culture of the world's toughest game, beats a big soft, caring heart of love.

"We want to help improve mental health literacy, to help people recognise the signs and symptoms," Boland-Rudder said.

"Who plays league? Mainly men. Who watches league? Lots of men. We have a unique opportunity to deliver powerful social change. It comes from a place of passion. Too many of us have been touched by suicide."

Distance that divides

He spoke of launching Road to Resilience in the Sunraysia region of rural Victoria last week, where a Pacific Island population pick fruit seasonally and play football.

In the region there'd been a terrible car crash, with one player killed and two others in hospital, long-term.

Another player's baby died.

The Pacific Island community is particularly at risk when cut off from the deep family support systems of home.

"It was such an eye-opener to talk to people who were openly saying the State of Mind programme has saved lives. People knew where the local Headspace centre was. They knew it was okay to ask for help. They've been doing it. And it's been working. It was a really emotional event," he said.

Important stories

Manly second-rower, and former Raider, Dragon and NSW Country Origin and Indigenous All Stars rep, Joel Thompson, has been a State of Mind ambassador since its inception seven years ago.

His own story is of a road to redemption and now resilience.

"I had a tough childhood that came back to haunt me, mate," he says.

"I wasn't coping a few years ago when I came into first grade. There was a lot of outside noise and I was drinking a lot. I didn't want to be here anymore."

His girlfriend at the time, Amy, now his wife and the mother of their two daughters, pushed him to get help.

"She saved my life. I had never spoken to someone. I opened up and cried like a baby and I came out a different person.

Simple messages

Thompson has been a dedicated, passionate ambassador for State of Mind ever since.

"It lit a fire under me. It was like 'wow!' I'd never helped anyone before and in helping others, I've helped with my own healing."

His message is simple. There's no stigma or weakness in reaching out for help if you think you might have problems with your mental health.

But he also felt the pressure all young men do not to show any weakness.

"I was brought up not be be a sook, toughen up" he said.

"As a young guy you want to prove yourself, not get help."

State of health

But now he tells young, grassroots players that it's brave to reach out, to say you're not coping. No-one will judge. He tells them how to see the signs of mental illness in themselves and others, and talks coping strategies.

Jaymes Boland-Rudder, Joel Thompson and a lot of other people at the NRL know, deep down, State of Mind has saved lives in their community.

If the toughest men in the toughest game are looking out for each other and talking about their mental health, just like they pull an injured mate from the turf, so can we.

Big sport is genuinely caring about people saving lives and that's about as exciting as State of Origin three.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

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