AS THE tragic story of Alex Elisala was being felt across rugby league this week, the questions were being asked, quite rightly: what is the NRL doing, and is it enough? Within a matter of weeks, two potential NRL players had died.
Yet in a nondescript conference room in Brighton-le-Sands on Thursday morning, what is being done was being done. It was not being done as a result of Elisala’s death. Nor was Fairfax Media’s invitation only offered after Elisala’s death. The talk given by trained counsellors to the NRL clubs’ welfare staff was planned well before this week.
It was too late for Elisala, the North Queensland squad member who died this week, and Wests Tigers’ Mosese Fotuaika, another NRL prospect gone at age 20. It will be difficult to gauge whether any amount of preventative work would have been enough. Those deaths, though, bring into sharp focus how critical the work in mental health and suicide prevention is today.
Gone too soon: Mosese Fotuaika in action for Wests Tigers against Canberra in last year’s under-20s grand final. Photo: Getty Images
Of course, they are important issues for society to ponder. But consider this: the average NRL player will be considered strong and tough and brave, but he is also more vulnerable than most.
In Australia, about 2000 people die each year through suicide. More people die in Australia through suicide than motor vehicle accidents, while according to research, one in 17 people will consider suicide each year, more than one million people. But then this: one in four suicide deaths involve people aged 20 to 29.
Males are five times more likely to die through suicide than females; suicide is the No.1 killer of men under the age of 44. So what of young sportsmen? This year, too, there were reports that former NRL player Brett Seymour was suffering from depression, and his wife suggested a car crash two months ago in Britain may have been an attempt to take his own life.
Heartbreaking news: Alex Elisala’s death rocked his Cowboys teammates. Photo: Getty Images
‘‘The last few months have been quite a challenge,’’ said Justin Simmonds, a clinical psychologist and the NSW manager of Davidson Trahaire Corpsych, which provides employee assistance programs and counselling services to the NRL as part of a 10-year-old partnership. On Thursday, it was providing training to key staff across NRL clubs about the issue.
What cannot really be quantified is the effect the sport has on its players, with its enormous highs and terrifying lows. What we do know is that Fotuaika, the Wests Tigers forward, took his own life in March only hours after suffering a pectoral muscle injury in the club’s gymnasium.
How significant a factor that serious injury was, along with other pressures, will likely never be known for certain. The issue is that while medical staff almost immediately knew Fotuaika’s physical injury - and scans were supposed to be done to prove it - he never made the appointment. The signs of mental illness are far more difficult to recognise than a sprained ankle or a strained hamstring. Many people will give signs, but many will not.
All players suffer some form of physical injury. But, when it is considered that between 20 and 25 per cent of the population will suffer from depression at some point in their lives, it is no long bow to consider that a number of NRL players, right now, are suffering from mental illness, and need help.
In Rugby League Week’s annual players’ poll, one in five players admitted to having suffered some form of depression, reflecting the research in wider society.
The quandary is, while playing through pain is a sign of toughness, many consider mental illness a sign of being weak, or soft. ‘‘They’re ashamed and they’re embarrassed about it,’’ Simmonds said.
‘‘We’re trying to reduce that stigma, so they can recognise it as any other physical injury or illness.’’ He believes that stigma is being eroded, partly with the help of an increased focus on welfare.
Each club now has a welfare manager and a career development manager, rather than one member of staff who juggled both. They are a mix of former league players and those who aren’t, but are formally trained in other areas.
They each have a mental health first aid qualification. ‘‘It’s generally someone who’s walked the talk a bit, and someone who’s a professional in another area,’’ the NRL’s education and welfare manager Paul Heptonstall said.
The welfare and education staff were put through two days of training which involved, aside from mental health and suicide prevention, alcohol, drugs, the NRL’s new integrity unit as well as the ongoing ASADA investigation into the code.
The suicide prevention discussion, held over several hours on Thursday morning, became so tragically relevant.
Members of minority groups are also considered to be in a higher risk category. In Australia, Pacific Islanders are considered to be in a minority group. But consider the fact that, while speakers of Pacific Island languages accounted for less than 0.3 per cent of the Australian population in the census of 2011, at the same time, they made up almost 30 per cent of the NRL talent.
An ‘‘enough is enough’’ attitude is developing. This week, following Elisala’s death, Wests Tigers players Eddy Pettybourne and Ben Murdoch-Masila offered their assistance to the NRL.
‘‘Some Polynesians tend to hide their feelings a little bit,’’ Murdoch- Masila said. ‘‘They hold back. When I first came into NRL and first grade training, I held back a bit. I didn’t really talk to anyone for the first six months.’’ Yet, at the same time, the pressure to provide for large families is significant. While acting as a pathway for many young players, the under-20s competition has, according to Pettybourne, perhaps added to expectations.
Dr Jioji Ravulo, an academic and counsellor who spoke to the mentors and welfare staff, described the NRL as ‘‘progressive’’ when it came to mental health. ‘‘Australian society is starting to become better at understanding the importance of mental health, and how it does impact on everyday life,’’ he said.
What we know is that even young and proud men, who are on the surface so strong, and who appear to have long careers ahead of them, can be suffering silently. What we don’t know scares everyone. The most haunting, yet also important words came not from a trained counsellor, but from a friend and teammate. ‘‘It could be anyone,’’ Pettybourne said.