NRL stars join fight against depression
They are conditioned to show no pain on the rugby league field but former NRL star Joe Williams is pleading with players to open themselves up off the field as he tries desperately to raise the awareness of mental health.
Williams was a guest speaker at the Indigenous Players Leadership Camp on the Gold Coast on the weekend ahead of Friday's Harvey Norman Rugby League All Stars match and shared the battle he continues to wage against depression and which plagued his rugby league career.
The beyondblue organisation that helps Australians to understand depression and anxiety and empowers them to seek help and says that on average 1 in 8 men in Australia will experience depression in their lifetime.
Despite their physical prowess the hundreds of players spread throughout NRL clubs are no less susceptible to mental health issues and Williams has urged them to not only help themselves, but to help each other.
Each NRL club is equipped with welfare officers to assist players in all aspects of their life away from football and Williams said players should not feel embarrassed about putting up their hand to ask for help.
"It can be extreme highs and hype and fame that comes with [playing in the NRL] but then there can be extreme lows," said Williams, whose short film, The Enemy Within, details his battles with depression as he now forges a professional boxing career.
"Me being here this week is about raising the awareness of it and getting people to talk about it. Opening that conversation that it's not a shameful thing to talk about.
"There are so many kids that don't want their coaches to know or don't want people to know they're struggling with depression and it's a real shame because the people in power, the coaches and welfare officers, are in a position where they can help the kids and if the kids ask for help, I can definitely say that's what these welfare officers are there for, to help the kids."
It's an issue that has hit the North Queensland Cowboys harder than most clubs over the past two years and one that co-captain Johnathan Thurston is consciously trying to address with his teammates.
Thurston will captain the Indigenous All Stars team on Friday night at Cbus Super Stadium and believes the pressures on young players today are greater than when he came into the top grade more than a decade ago.
"As a playing group it is about recognising it and trying to talk to the boys, having an ice breaker," Thurston said.
"You might ask someone are you OK and you know they are not OK and they might say, 'Yeah I'm OK'.
"It is about breaking that first barrier down and having the confidence to say, 'I know you better than that, you are not OK so let's go for a coffee'. Then you can point them in the right direction.
"The expectations and pressures are a lot higher than when I was first coming through.
"These kids are expected to work a job or study full-time. At our club for instance they used to train in the morning, work all day, then train in the afternoon but they have cut that so they are only training in the afternoon and trying to take those pressures and expectations off them while also helping them away from the football field."
Williams played 49 games for the Rabbitohs, Bulldogs and Panthers between 2004-2008 but did so under the weight of depressive states that would make weekly team selections almost unbearable.
His boxing career has reached the point where he is eyeing off a fight in the coming months that could potentially move him into the top-15 contenders worldwide in his weight division but says the management of his depression is a continual process.
"For me there are some days where I'm no different; I can sit in a room all day and live inside my own head but it's those times where you're in your darkest place that you've got to move forward," he said.
"It's bringing light to the fact that depression itself and mental illness is something that can target everyone and it doesn't matter who it takes or what it takes.
"There's a stigma around it that not a lot of people want to talk about. I'm trying to de-stigmatise it a little bit and talk in detail about my depression but it's not only helping me, it's encouraging other people to talk as well because talking definitely helps."
If you or someone you know is having issues with depression visit the NRL State of Mind website and our many partner organisations.