Maitua's powerful story on mental health
Former NRL star Reni Maitua has a simple, yet powerful message for anyone wanting to open up about mental struggles; it's not weak to speak.
The 35-year-old has recently been appointed at the NRL as a State of Mind project officer, helping deliver the program in New South Wales and Victoria, and knows first-hand what happens if you bottle your emotions until it's too late.
A tumultuous stint at the Eels came to a head in the Suncorp Stadium dressing rooms when Maitua broke down following Parramatta's 22-12 loss to the Broncos in 2013.
The Eels had won just four games that season and with his future unclear, the weight of the team's fortunes took their toll on the Parramatta co-captain.
It was at that point Maitua considered taking his own life, but thanks to the intervention of former teammate Willie Tonga, tragedy was averted.
As Maitua told NRL.com, a lot has changed in the four years since that fateful night, and having turned his life around, his next objective is to educate and mentor those in need.
"I think it was a build-up of a lot of things from that year. I kept a lot to myself, I think I kept too high a standards for myself in terms of my rugby league career," Maitua said.
"I was appointed co-captain and I felt that the weight of the team was on my shoulders and there were a few things in my life that were building and were detrimental to my health. I kept all of those things to myself for a long period and it all came to a head in that Broncos game.
"It was a perfect storm and unfortunately it led me down that destructive spiral. That's where my depression was diagnosed around that time.
"My teammates had no idea. After the fact they were kind of aware that something wasn't quite right throughout the year because I was either really bubbly or I was very distant and a bit of a recluse.
"Rugby league is a bit of a macho sport so I kept everything to myself because you don't want to show signs of weakness and at the time I thought that was the best thing for me."
"Rugby league is a bit of a macho sport so I kept everything to myself because you don't want to show signs of weakness and at the time I thought that was the best thing for me.
"It was just white noise at first and then it got louder and louder and louder. It was just disappointment after disappointment. My pre-season didn't go well because my body wasn't responding as well as a 30-year-old compared to what I was used to.
"I just accumulated a lot of different negatives that were happening in my life and that noise just got louder to the point that it became pain and pain and pain. It got to the point where it was too much to handle so I had to seek help.
"Hindsight is a beautiful thing, so given the education and the therapy I was given through very supportive clubs in Parramatta and the Bulldogs, I should have spoken out.
"I continued to get help through a psychiatrist, group therapy and medication and I was alcohol free after that. That was a huge turning point in my life and gave me the understanding of what depression was and what I was suffering and why I was suffering. "
Breaking down stigmas
There's a stigma that athletes are too big and strong to suffer from depression. That's wrong.
There's also a view that speaking about mental health goes against the footy culture. That's also wrong.
When you consider one in two Australians will experience mental illness over the course of a lifetime and that suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15-44, it's no surprise the NRL is doing everything in its power to ensure the welfare of its players is at an all-time high.
"The NRL had done a fantastic job in keeping mental welfare and the wellbeing of players at the forefront," Maitua said.
"Unfortunately we've had some young deaths and some high-profile players come out and speak about their depression, but I find the more I researched it, I found that it was a societal problem, not just an NRL issue.
"There's still a long way to go, but the stigmas surrounding depression in rugby league have changed drastically compared to previous years."
"There's still a long way to go, but the stigmas surrounding depression in rugby league have changed drastically compared to previous years.
"There's definitely more awareness for NRL players and kids coming through the NYC program, and the clubs are promoting through their welfare officers that there are avenues for them to talk.
"In the early stages of my career, I'd say there wasn't anything in that space, but towards the backend of my career and up until now, the NRL has come leaps and bounds."
Life after footy
When his footy career came to a close in the UK last year, Maitua knew he still had a role to play with the game's future stars.
"I thought it was my obligation to help those who were suffering in all walks of life. Rugby league is my background so that's the best avenue for me to have that interaction with players," he said.
"I did some volunteer work with the NRL in the pre-season, I spoke to The Rookie squad and I spoke to the Parramatta staff and players.
"I completed an introductory counselling college course in the UK last year in what was my last year in rugby league and I completed my mental first aid course.
"I was given an opportunity to join the State of Mind program, which is a six-step grassroots program that sees us go out to regional areas and reach out to clubs who need our help.
"We set up an education day out there so we'll present a 75-90 minute program about mental wellness and mental health. From there, we try to set up an event day surrounding their club. The end result is us looking to recognise them as a State of Mind club for the NRL.
"We're basically empowering these areas to encourage people to talk in every aspect of life, not just rugby league. We want to give them the encouragement to go out and speak to their kids, siblings, co-workers or whoever they want and rugby league is the perfect avenue for us to get that message across.
"I'm learning as I'm going and it's been a very fun journey at this stage. It's not confronting for me anymore because I know what my triggers are and I can always step away from the program if I'm not feeling mentally well; the NRL is very supportive of that."
Given everything he's been through over the years, Maitua has one simple message for athletes who are too afraid to speak out.
"It's a very simple thing; it's not weak to speak. It's a common phrase used and I think it's very powerful," he said.
"Statistics show that it's harder for a young male to speak out, especially in a sporting environment where it's hard to address teammates and tell them that they're not feeling well, but I think the most encouraging thing for me is having someone tap me on the shoulders and tell me they're not doing well.
"That's a really powerful step for any person to take so my advice is for people to have the conversation because we don't want any more people to become a statistic."
The NRL's State of Mind program is supported in partnership with expert health partners: Kids Helpline, The Black Dog Institute, headspace, Lifeline and New Zealand based organisation, Le Va.
For more information on the NRL's State of Mind program and other Community Programs that the NRL delivers, visit www.nrl.com/forchange
The 'Power For Change' campaign builds on the narrative of existing community programs and initiatives undertaken year-round by all levels of the Game and supported more broadly throughout communities.