Paul Whatuira opens up on depression, mental health to help young NRL players
FATIMA KDOUH, News Corp Australia Network
October 28, 2016 10:05pm
THE voices inside Paul Whatuira’s head were telling him to kill his partner and their unborn child.
“And then all hell broke loose,” recalls the two-time NRL premiership winner and former Kiwi Test star.
The very raw and real story of Whatuira’s downward spiral into depression and the psychotic episode which almost cost him his life is one he now wants every young rugby league player to hear.
Whatuira, now a fulltime welfare officer at the Wests Tigers, who themselves have been touched by suicide, knows his story can save lives.
The rugby league world only found out about Whatuira’s battle with mental illness after the former Panthers and Wests Tigers star had packed up his life in Australia and moved to England in to play for Super League side Huddersfield in 2008.
He was happy, he had proposed to his ex-partner Vanessa and he was ready to take on the challenge of playing rugby league in a new country.
But then Whatuira found out he was going to be a father and his life as he knew it crumbled.
The news brought up suppressed memories of his sexual assault as a six-year-old and of his troubled childhood, surrounded by alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.
Paul Whatuira, with his daughter Gabrielle, has come a long way since his darkest hour
“When I left my family and friends and moved to England and at the time I was happy and just proposed to my fiancee at the time Vanessa,” Whatuira said.
“Expecting to be a father triggered memories of my childhood and upbringing, being surrounded by alcohol and drugs and unfortunately at the age of six being sexually assaulted.”
Whatuira started reliving the abuse and with each day he would fall deeper into a depression that threatened to end in tragedy on more than one occasion.
The harder the 199-game veteran tried to bury the demons of his childhood, the darker his life became.
Eventually he started hearing voices. He had become psychotic.
The voices were telling him to kill his partner and unborn child. He was so worried the voices would overpower him, he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital.
“I was away from my family in Australia and New Zealand and it was a bit of downward spiral from there,” Whatuira said.
“For about three to four months I suffered from depression and replaying the episodes that happened in my childhood.
“That’s when I slipped into psychosis and went seven days without any sleep and that’s when the real … hearing voices and those voices on the seventh day were telling me to hurt my partner and unborn child.
“And then all hell broke loose.”
Paul Whatuira experienced a downward spiral once he moved to England.
Finally reaching breaking point, Whatuira was looking for a way to “put himself out of his misery”.
He describes what happened next and his actions as that of a “mad man”.
“I went to the hospital and checked myself in and I was put in a room … and I was lying in that room the voices became stronger,” he said.
“I broke out of the hospital threatening the nurse at 3am like a mad man … I ran through the streets of Huddersfield trying to find ways to put myself out of this misery … I was looking for moving cars to put myself in front of
“But unfortunately I came across two young men going to work to provide for their family and the voices became stronger and they told me to hit them which I did, unfortunately knocking one person out cold.
Whatuira won two premierships in three years in a glittering NRL career.
“I was in so much rage and anger, I was tasered by the police, thrown into a jail cell and locked up.
“Once the police knew who I was, when they locked me up and saw the state I was in, I was mentally unwell and that’s when I was taken to the psychiatric hospital.
”That’s where they induced me with some heavy drugs and after seven days of no sleep and hearing voices and being scared, that’s when I finally got some rest and I was locked up for four weeks in a psychiatric hospital.”
Ultimately his recovery from the depths of despair would cost him his rugby league career.
“Nathan Brown [then coach at Huddersfield], who is Knights coach now, he was very supportive and helped me throughout that terrible ordeal that I went through and my family,” Whatuira said.
“But at that time of my life it was 2009, I was very ill suffering from paranoia, anxiety issues and depression.
Whatuira’s story is a powerful one.
“I couldn’t function properly being so heavily medicated, I lived my days in drowsiness and that’s why I couldn’t train and couldn’t play at the highest level and that’s why I had to retire.”
Whatuira may have lost his career as a result of his mental health issues but this isn’t a sad story.
The former Kiwi international is now thriving and has risen from the hell which engulfed his life during his playing career.
As well as his role at Wests Tigers, Whatuira has started his running his public speaking business.
Whatuira knows his story can give those that might be suffering in silence some hope.
“It’s a game on the rise and I take it when I debuted in 2000 with the Warriors there was no help in the wellbeing space and there was no one to actually talk to about your problems off the field so I think they have taken great steps and I think that’s something I’m proud to be a part of,” Whatuira said.
The former Kiwi Test star is now the welfare officer for the Tigers.
“It’s a role [working as a welfare officer] I value a lot, I guess walking in the shoes of these young men today I understand what they go through, emotionally, physically and how demanding our sport is.
“And yes it is a privilege to play at the highest level but with that comes responsibilities. At the end of the day they are young men and they are going to make mistakes and for a high-profile athlete if they do make a mistake it’s on Facebook, it’s in the media, these players get scrutinised.”
In a dark irony, Whatuira is the most qualified welfare officer in the game. It has little to do with his formal education and everything to do with the invaluable lived experience he brings to the role.
Whatuira knows his story can save lives.
The game needs him, every NRL club needs him.
WATCH THE FULL INTERVIEW with Paul Whatuira in the video player above
If you or anyone you know needs help contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
The Tigers will be holding a charity gala evening to raise funds for Beyond Blue on the 29th of October. Limited tickets are available and can be purchased on the Wests Tigers website.