duncan bell bath

Saved by Bell: the former England and Bath prop turned financial advisor has been an inspiration to many

By Bea Asprey 

ONE IN four people suffers from a mental health illness. Look around your office, or think of your rugby club; that could mean one of your team, in some cases more. In the wake of the tragic suicides of former Welsh footballer Gary Speed and, closer to rugby’s heart, Sale’s Selorm Kuadey, the issue of depression has shot to the forefront of sport. And the good news is, stories such as that of Duncan Bell, the ex-Bath prop who has admitted to suffering from depression for a number of years during his rugby career, are not only encouraging people to come forward and talk about their experiences, but are also prompting others to get help. In Part 1 of this series, we asked Phil Hopley, a Consultant Psychiatrist at London Psychiatry and Psychology (LPP) who works closely with the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), what professional rugby in England is doing to help keep the black dog at bay.

selorm kuadey

Young promise: Selorm Kuadey, here scoring for Sale in the Premiership, died after an apparent suicide at the age of 24

Rugby World: Why is it important to talk about mental health? 

Phil Hopley: As a former London Wasps player, I understand the demands placed on our top-level sportsmen and women. Given the potential downside of pressure and stress, it’s vital that we ensure the best possible welfare for our players through education, prevention and treatment.

I can’t applaud Duncan Bell’s courage enough, and it’s fantastic that he’s been able to be so vocal about a very painful and personal issue. He was carefully advised by the RPA before he spoke out, as they wanted to make sure that he was ready for the reactions he would get. I know Duncan has been pleasantly surprised by the additional support he’s received since speaking out, and his story has been a catalyst for those struggling with the stigma surrounding mental health to come forward. Stigma still plays a big role in making it hard to seek help. Players’ negative assumptions about how they will be viewed can get in the way, while in contrast, those with family members who have sought treatment tend to be less scared, as they are more insightful.

ricky hatton

Boxing back: Ricky Hatton has overcome his drugs and alcohol addiction, which was fuelled by his retirement

RW: What services are open to professional players who might want to seek help? 

PH: Five years ago, we launched a confidential counselling service on behalf of the RPA, and since then we have seen an increase in players coming to us for help with mental health issues every season. At LPP, we are a team of experts in clinical, business and sports psychology. Our helpline is open 24-7 for RPA members who want to contact us anonymously to talk about problems they’re having around a range of areas including depression, stress, anxiety, retirement, relationships, gambling, drugs and alcohol and beyond. The work is funded by the RPA’s official charity, Restart, who automatically cover up to four sessions of psychological therapy (usually cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT) for the players.

RW: What has been done to increase awareness and education of mental health issues? 

john kirwan

Speaking out: ex-All Black John Kirwan has campaigned to increase awareness of mental health in New Zealand

PH: In January 2011 we ran a training session for the RPA’s Player Development Managers, in which we taught them about stress, mental health, early warning signs and how to talk to players about these issues. The RPA also delivered a mental health video seminar at Aviva Premiership clubs and Newcastle last season, in which Duncan Bell spoke about his struggle with depression. In addition my colleague, Dr Vince Gradillas, explained the nature of mental health problems and potential ways in which elite sportsmen and women can be affected. Each Premiership club will receive the seminar at least once every two years.

The RPA has also put posters up in team rooms and distributed business cards about our service, which have been seen by players, coaches and club doctors, and as a result, we’ve had an increase in referrals from those working with the players at their clubs. RPA members, who consist of current professional players and the alumni, or retired players, can also find our details on the RPA’s website, and in The Players’ Room magazine they receive.  The aim is to create lots of entry points and make the barriers to asking for help as low as possible.

marcus trescothick

Not alone: cricketer Marcus Trescothick famously ended his England career as a result of a stress-related illness

RW: What more can rugby do to help prevent depression? 

PH: At LPP we run half-day cognitive behavioural coaching workshops within the business and sporting worlds, which I would like to introduce into rugby. The aim of the course is to build up a person’s resilience to stress, and by that I mean their ability to stay focused, perform well under pressure and recover effectively. In this way it’s possible to minimise the harmful effects that stress can have on their health and performance.

Stress is a significant contributory factor to many mental health problems such as burn out, depression and anxiety, so we aim to coach people so that they can deal with it in a healthy way, and reduce the chance of mental health problems developing. At these interactive workshops, attendees are educated about the science behind stress, and encouraged to: 1) think about their thinking 2) identify ‘mind traps’ (errors in our thinking, which occur on a daily basis) 3) challenge their thinking errors, and 4) think about behaviours associated with stress, and how it’s possible to combat them with diet, sleep and exercise.

The good news is that by building our resilience, we not only optimize our health but also enhance our performance.

Check back for Part 2 next week, to see what’s happening at grass-roots level.

London Wasps teamed up with mental health charity, Mind, at the start of last season. Watch the video, below, to see the boys supporting World Mental Health Day.