With the issue of men’s mental health becoming more prominent among Australian NRL players, Jessica Cortis follows the return of player Samuel Elwin to his rural hometown after years of professional footy took its toll on his health, and more seriously, his life.
Located 418 kilometers from the heart of Sydney, sits a small country jewel called Temora. Labelled by many to be “one of the friendliest places in NSW”, the small town boasts a landscape of Australian native trees and mountainous ranges.
Of all the things that put the town on the map, the local residents are most proud of the fact that Temora is home to some of the most accomplished football players in NRL and 21-year-old Samuel Elwin was a promising pick to join the ranks.
Barely recognisable without a footy in his hand, you would always find Samuel at the local fields passing the ball around with his mates. He often stayed out until the streetlights went on.
The locals knew his ambitious mind and soaring talent would take him places—and it did. In 2015, Samuel was signed to the Penrith Panthers under 20’s team.
“Footy was my life as a kid, I was never interested in school or anything the teachers had to say because I had this crazy idea that I was going to make the big time NRL,” he says.
Fast forward to 2016, and Samuel is still training well into the evening. Only this time, the streetlights are harsh stadium beams, illuminating the perfectly manicured stage he calls the Penrith Panthers football ground. Surrounded by some of NRL’s best trainers and harshest critics, anyone would think Samuel was living his dream.
But it seems that somewhere between the dim Temora streetlights and the Penrith Panthers’ blinding stadium beams, Samuel lost sight of his dream.
“One day after training, all the pressure just built up and it was getting too much. I got my keys, went for a drive on Windsor road and looked for the biggest tree so that I wouldn’t be a disappointment to my town and my family because that’s all I saw myself as,” he says ashamedly.
“Footy was my life and it’s what almost took it too.”
– Samuel Elwin
That night, Samuel veered off the edge of the road, heading for a tree. With a racing heart and a numb mind, he swerved at the last second sending his red falcon ute into a ditch.
“I still remember the very moment and I can even point out the tree…It’s not something I’m proud of but I guess it was a big learning curve for me,” he says.
In Australia, at least 75 percent of suicides are male, with many men dying on their first attempt, according to a 2013 study. Samuel was lucky. It is also the case that the majority of men at greatest risk of suicide are not successfully engaged by mental health services.
Dr Neil Hall, Assistant Director of the Men’s Health Information and Resource Centre at Western Sydney University says much more should be done to make health services male friendly.
“Men access health services differently to women and for different reasons. However, health services are often tailored for women and children and this can create barriers for men. It’s not that male health is more or less important, but there needs to be recognition that services designed for one gender may not be as effective for the other,” he says.
Being a male athlete from a rural community meant Samuel had three discriminatory battles. An accumulation of pressures from football, the fear of not having a future in NRL and adjusting to a place that was far removed from country town Temora put Samuel into a bleak mind frame.
Although physical activity is often associated with an improvement in mood, a recent study by a University in Brazil, found that high-intensity exercise can have adverse effects on mood and emotions.
Concerns for Australia’s male NRL players have been raised after Rabbitohs star Greg Inglis, recently admitted himself to rehab following his battle with depression. In the past 12 months, there has been an emergence of players facing mental health issues including high- profile players Mitchell Pearce, Kieran Foran and Ben Barba.
“Everyone knows me as the immature idiot who’s always smiling during the day and trying to get a few laughs out of people. But at night, all these crazy thoughts would just rush into my head. I had stuffed around all through school and I never bothered getting a trade or a degree because I was always moving towns to chase my NRL dream. I would lay in bed staring at the roof and think to myself ‘I have absolutely no qualification or anything to my name besides footy.’”
During Samuel’s most challenging moments, he turned to the unlikeliest of places to seek help –Instagram. After seeing a post by former NRL player, Joe Williams, Samuel decided to get in contact with him. Joe had been playing professional NRL until he retired after suffering from depression. Now, Joe Williams is a motivational speaker, providing support and creating awareness of mental illness for young athletes.
“Messaging Joe was the best thing I ever did. I didn’t know him but I knew he had a lot to do with suicide prevention and a few days later, a bloke from the NRL came and spoke to us about mental health. If it wasn’t for these two people and my family, I wouldn’t be alive today,” Samuel admits solemnly.
After consulting with his coaches, Samuel went to France in September for six months to play for a local team, deciding that it would be best for his mental health.
His return to Australia could not come at a more appropriate time, with Men’s Health Week launching between 12-18 June. Dr Hall is urging males to use this event as an opportunity to address the growing issue.
“The most effective way of improving the health of Australian men is to work with communities, businesses and health services to bridge the gap between men and the health system in order to support them through their life journey,” he says.
“Men’s Health Week should trigger health professionals and policy makers to consider how they can deliver more effective health services for males coming from all backgrounds.”
With the annual State of Origin competition also kicking off at the end of May, NRL has launched their State of Mind campaign, in partnership with Lifeline, Kids Helpline, Headspace and the Black Dog Institute. Although surprisingly, it was only launched last year despite the prominence of poor mental health in an increasing number of players. The campaign hopes to reduce the stigma around mental illnesses by educating and informing people of the resources available to them as well as connecting rugby league communities with experts and professionals.
“It’s good to see the NRL is being proactive and are doing something to support players. I think the main problem with men is they believe it’s not very ‘manly’ to open up about their feelings. A stronger focus on promoting a positive environment where players can talk openly about their mental issues is a step in the right direction,” Samuel says.
It’s the 19th May and the window of Samuel’s red falcon ute is down as he nears the end of the four- hour car journey from Sydney to Temora. The light country air rolls in, filling the car with the scent of dry grass and oak wood that can only be associated with blissful childhood memories. The car cruises through Temora’s main road, driving past the post office and local primary school. Samuel takes a deep breath and smiles, knowing he is home.
If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au or beyondblue Support Service on 1300 22 4636.