More rugby league players speaking out on mental health


The NRL is paying more attention to mental health issues among players. Photo: Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are many realms in which mental health is a topic of focus, and the sporting field is no exception.

The National Rugby League (NRL) has dominated headlines not just because of high intensity action on the field, but the mental health of its players.

In the NRL, issues associated with mental health are now receiving the same attention as injuries on the field.

Much of the attention is being drawn to prominent figures speaking openly, honestly and more frequently about their battles with alcoholism and depression.

The pressure of playing at the elite level can be immense which can lead to or inflame existing issues such as anxiety, depression and addiction.

It is not uncommon for athletes to struggle with these issues, but there is a stigma attached to mental health in sport that makes it difficult for players to speak openly about what they are struggling with in their personal lives.

But this is slowly changing – over time, more and more athletes are coming forward about their battles with their mental health.

A prominent example of this shift is when current Cronulla Sharks halfback, Nicho Hynes – who recently signed a lifetime deal with the club – spoke about his battles with depression last year.

Hynes had to endure many challenges through his life, and spoke openly to the public about his mother’s recent drug trial (when she was found guilty of knowingly supplying heroin).

During an interview in 2021 on the Matty Johns show, Face-to-Face, Hynes talked about “a complete empty feeling.”

“I remember one day I was just laying on the ground in my own hands in tears and I remember that day was something I never wanted to feel like again,” he said.

The face-to-face interview with Hynes enabled the public to see his raw emotion and feelings, which has allowed some of the stigma surrounding mental health in sports, to be broken down slowly but effectively.

In addition to players coming forward about their personal struggles, the NRL has continued its programs to help players with their mental health.

In 2013, the State of Mind campaign was launched, in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation.

Designed to raise awareness about these issues and to reduce the stigma around them, the program is used to provide support systems for players who are struggling as well as educate them about the impact mental health issues can have on their performance.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, two in five Australians, aged 16-85, have a mental health disorder at some point in their life.

The Mental Health First Aid program is another project mplemented by the NRL.

The program is designed to train and educate players and coaches in mental health first aid, which will enable them to see and respond to signs of mental health decline in teammates and colleagues.

It could be vital in preventing more serious problems in the future and is designed for early intervention and prevention.

Another example of a shift in attitudes is South Sydney Rabbitohs star, Liam Knight, opening up earlier this year about his fight against binge drinking and the toll that prescription drugs took on his life.

After suffering a ruptured ACL and MCL injury in July last year, Knight turned to binge drinking, which ultimately led to depression.

Knight told NRL News 2023 that he “was heavily depressed, and all I was thinking about was ‘I want to have a beer to get out of this place’, and it wasn’t working.”

While the NRL is making significant changes, there is clearly still work to be done on preserving the mental health of its elite athletes, for whom it’s likely to be challenging coming forward about their battles.

There is still stigma surrounding mental health in elite sports but despite this, rugby league will see further improvements as individual players speak openly about their struggles, and as the NRL continues to give these athletes support systems to reach out to.