Former Sale, England and Wasps lock Kearnan Myall shocked the rugby world this week. In an interview with The Guardian he revealed his struggles with mental illness as a professional rugby player.
Both England and Wasps have responded with statements offering their condolences, but the evident shock from both camps is surely evidence that situations like his are not being correctly identified and dealt with. A change of culture is in order.
“I imagine suicide is very different with different people,” Myall told Robert Kitson, “I just wanted the situation to be over. Luckily one of my teammates, Charlie Davies, came out, grabbed me and dragged me back over [from the 15th floor balcony he had climbed out of].”
In reply, the Wasps club statement read, “we are shocked and saddened to learn of former lock Kearnan Myall’s recent revelations about his struggles with mental health during his time in rugby… it is imperative, that rugby players at all levels worldwide are supported not just physically, but mentally.”
Wasps reaffirmed they, “encourage players or staff to utilise the support, which is on offer on a regular basis, and will continue to remind them who they should contact if or when they feel that they require the support.”
The response from the England camp was similar. Myall had suggested he has several (unnamed) friends who “dread” the pressure and scrutiny of playing for England.
Scott Wisemantel, England’s attack coach, mounted a strong defence of Eddie Jones’ camp in reply, “We’ve had no complaints at all through the RPA (Rugby Players’ Association),” he said. “There’s never been a complaint. I feel for the player, but it was a long time before my time here.”
“I know the programme that Eddie runs here is intense but it’s well-structured. There is time for players to refresh, to get their heads right. It’s a well-balanced programme.”
Without meaning to discredit those two statements, which both offer their support for Myall, or undermine the work that both Wasps and England do, the very fact that Myall was driven to attempting to commit suicide shows there is something severely wrong with modern rugby.
Rugby culture has changed significantly, and awareness of mental health issues is rising throughout every section of society. Academies are investing more time and effort in encouraging activities outside of rugby than ever, whether they be music or academia, and the England camp offer yoga classes and mindfulness support.
Nevertheless, that a seasoned pro like Myall, who is about to embark on a PhD in psychiatry at Oxford University, felt unable to speak out, or seek help through the relevant rugby set up, speaks volumes.
Damian Hopley, the chief executive of the Rugby Players’ Association, has stated since Myall’s interview that 10% of Premiership players used the RPA mental illness helpline last season.
Availability of support does not necessarily mean that a sporting environment is conducive to supporting those susceptible to mental illness, however, as the Myall case demonstrates. Clubs must tackle the causes of such instances, not simply look to alleviate symptoms.
As Myall himself has said, “it’s a combination of pressure, scrutiny, what’s going to be said and what they’re going to be made to do within the confines of the camp… the pressures in rugby are only going to get bigger. They’re increasing season on season far quicker than anything that is supposed to be helping people.”
Rugby, like all walks of life, must do more. It cannot afford to sweep Myall’s revelations under the carpet. Let hope us the cynics, who suggest clubs have being doing so all along, are not right.
Written by Joe Ronan