Rising awareness of mental health issues throughout society has, over the last few years, led to a more frank and honest discussion about the issues faced by individuals. Recently, Denny Solomona became the latest high-profile sportsperson to come out and discuss his personal struggles, but one of the few prominent professional rugby players to do so.
Solomona revealed his struggles with alcohol to The Times, “everyone finds releases for their issues and unfortunately drinking was mine,” openly admitting “there have been a lot of mental battles in my career.” Such public candour is rare and admirable, and Solomona has contributed to an important, ongoing but underdeveloped debate in the sport.
Amongst those who have engaged with the issue publicly is Jonny Wilkinson, who now has his own foundation to help tackle the problem. One of the worlds greatest and most recognisable players has talked of his own struggles with anxiety during his playing career. In his autobiography he says, “merely to know that I have an illness that is not abnormal was like a first weight off my shoulders,” before going on to document the positive impact therapy had on his health, both physical and mental.
Rugby is rare amongst popular sports in its extreme concussion rates. Research conducted by the journal ‘Physical Therapy in Sport’ during the 2016/17 season, demonstrated “the burden of concussion in professional rugby is high. Incidence rates appear to be increasing year on year while severity is unchanged.” In many ways’ rugby is ahead of the curve on concussion, and procedures regarding head injury assessments are more stringently enforced than any other prominent sport. Indeed, many in football called for the implementation of rugby style procedures after the debilitated state of Jan Vertonghen in the Champions League semi-final. Following a blow to the head, UEFA President Aleksander Cerefin has admitted he feared for Vertonghen may die, and has since petitioned FIFA for a change to the laws.
However, what is less frequently documented is the concrete correlation between concussion and mental health problems established by academic research. This marks rugby as separate from other sports on the issue of mental health. Findings published by the British Psychological Society state that athletes with a history of six or more concussions (which is 15% of rugby players) are between two to five times more likely to report symptoms of common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
These statistics are shocking. However, it is thought that the issue is exacerbated, or perhaps even caused by, a lack of mental health literacy in rugby, and ‘tough guy’ stereotypes. In an Auckland University based exploration into the connections between Pacific Island heritage, physicality and mental health issues, it became apparent that the ‘enforcer’ image projected on players fails to represent their full personality and can lead to mental health complications.
The case of rugby illustrates clearly the potential link between physical impact and mental health distress, but this is something that has not yet been fully addressed by those in the sport. While mental health charity Mind have emphasised the positive impact regular exercise and the sense of communal belonging gained by participating in a team sport, awareness of the potential risks is key in order to raise awareness and continue to prompt constructive discussion.
Written by Joe Ronan