For some sportsmen, the pressure to perform and be successful can have a life-threatening impact on mental health.
Bulletproof, inhuman and indestructible are words often used to describe NRL players. Known for their toughness and ability to play 80 gruelling minutes of intense physical activity, they are conditioned to show no pain.
But for some players their hardest battles are faced behind closed doors and away from the football field.
Suicide is not a word people like to speak about and things are no different in sport, but the dangers are something former NRL star and current WBF junior welterweight champion Joe Williams is all too familiar with.
He was tough and seemingly unbreakable. Known for his athleticism on the field and in the ring, he performed at the highest level of competition in two of the hardest sporting arenas. A few years ago, when he had the world at his feet, no one imagined he could suffer from depression.
Williams then discovered just how easily depression can take hold. Sadly, it took a failed suicide attempt for him to realise that he needed professional help. Today he openly admits that he is a “massive struggler of mental health” in hopes of helping others.
“I remember it like it was yesterday mate: I remember the smell in the air, I remember what was on TV, I remember what I was wearing.” He said.
“I was in a bad place, I wasn’t in a good place at all and the only way I could think for it to go away was to just end my life.
“When I woke up I didn’t know whether to be disappointed that it didn’t work … or to be thankful that it didn’t work.
“I did absolutely everything possible to not be here anymore. But I was thankful because I got to spend more days with my kids… ”
Williams believes it is understandable that football players find it impossible to speak up about their problems, given the fans’ expectation of toughness. Among the sporting fraternity, any sign of mental weakness has long been considered taboo. “Three in four people see [mental illness] as a sign of weakness,” he told The Newsroom.
But he thinks they are wrong.
“I’ve met some of the smartest, most intelligent and some of the most mentally tough people in my life – and they battle with a mental illness.
“I have played NRL and boxing and they are two of the toughest sports in the world so you can’t sit there and call me weak.”
Unfortunately, Williams’ story is far from unique. The deaths of two promising young stars, Hayden Butler, 20, and Regan Grieve, 18, rocked the NRL world earlier this year, their lives cut short by mental illness.
“Suicide is an epidemic,” Williams said. “There’s plenty of awareness being thrown around suicide and prevention, but what we have to do is the next stage of education.
“We’ve got kids losing their lives man; it just can’t be happening.”
“The NRL is such a huge marketable item and there’s so much invested in it that you have to be the best you can every single week; that’s what separates the good players.”
Everybody wanted to be the achiever who plays 100 NRL games, Williams said, but realistically, not all could reach those heights – and that was when the pressure started to build.
“I can understand how some of these kids get into some pretty bad places because they have put so much pressure on themselves for a lot of years.”
Many big NRL names including Preston Campbell, Reni Maitua, Danny Buderus and current Penrith Panthers player Jamal Idris have spoken publicly about their fight with depression and mental illness.
Though Williams has had an impressive sporting career, he is proudest of overcoming drug and alcohol addiction and continuing his efforts to break the barriers on mental illness.
“The more I get used to talking about it the more I’m helping people and that outweighs any sporting achievement I have had for sure. I’m happy that I’m helping people and I’m saving lives every day, that’s the most important thing to me.”
A key factor in overcoming mental health problems, is finding and accepting professional help he says, “no matter how mentally tough you think you are.”
Williams’s humble attitude has inspired many sufferers all around Australia but he believes he still has more to offer. “It may battle me, but it won’t beat me,” he says. – Ellen Conroy
Top photo from Joe Williams’s Twitter feed.
For help with emotional difficulties, contact Lifeline on 131 114 or www.lifeline.org.au.
For help with depression, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or at www.beyondblue.org.au.