Depression. Anxiety. Suicide.
Once taboo to speak about, mental health issues are now part of our everyday vernacular, but with eight Australians taking their life every day, we are far from locking in solid solutions to this complex national crisis.
We do know, however, that talking helps, so when sporting heroes – who on-field are the image of strength, determination and in male-dominated sports, virility – publicly address the dark thoughts plaguing their minds, it helps to collectively normalise the conversation.
Sporting superstar Mat Rogers has lived a great life of achievement – among the long list, he played at the top level in NRL and rugby union, has a high-profile media presence, competed on Network Ten’s Survivor and is authoring his autobiography.
But the 44-year-old Queensland Origin legend has not been immune to the effects of mental illness. In fact, he has been quoted saying he feared depression might be a family curse.
After losing his mum, Carol, to breast cancer in 2001, Rogers’ dad, Steve – an NRL legend in his own right and known as one of the greatest Cronulla Sharks players of all time – took his life in 2006.
He was just 51 years old.
Rogers had already experienced the loss of his uncle to the same fate.
For Rogers, being part of a growing group of sports stars – including the likes of NRL’s Greg Inglis and Darius Boyd and AFL’s Buddy Franklin – who are normalising mental health conversations is an important role to assume.
“I didn’t even really know what mental health was back then [in 2006], no one really talked about it and no one really understood it,” Rogers tells SMART Daily.
“Now it’s talked about so much more and understood a lot better. It’s hoped you can pick up the signs and notice something.
“It’s like when you ask someone the question and they’re not OK, they don’t even know where to start. It’s been a lightning rod for their life, that opportunity to speak to someone who is prepared to try and understand them.”
Rogers says we must get better at talking about suicide in a way it does not become the defining factor of someone’s entire life.
“For me, a lot of people they’re nervous to talk to me about my dad because of what he went and done and I hate that,” Rogers says.
“That was not my dad and not my dad’s legacy, that was a moment in time where he succumbed to the darkness of what he was feeling. I honestly think it’s held back him being recognised as the great player he was.”
While Rogers says his sporting career was a “dream run”, he understands the pressures placed on young players.
“Life’s hard. Just life itself is hard,” he says.
“I’m now in sports management and work with a lot of young kids and understand they have to deal with uncertainty and not feeling wanted. It’s a pretty big need for all of us, feeling wanted.
“You throw in celebrity on top of everyone wanting a piece of you, the looking after your family, there’s a lot of stress that goes into a player’s life.
“To have guys like Buddy Franklin and Greg Inglis to be so open about their mental battles, I reckon that is just enormous, I was so stoked to see that. It shows other players it’s OK and that they’re not crazy.
“It’s also important we’re all vigilant as individuals for the people around us. I’ve been in some pretty dark places and the last thing I’ve wanted to do was bring other people into them but I have been fortunate in having a great brother, wife and friends who have been able to recognise that and step in.”
Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney co director Professor Ian Hickie – who became the inaugural Beyond Blue CEO in 2001 – says the change in attitudes to mental health, especially in the NRL has been nothing but positive.
“Working with sport is particularly important if you want to get the public talking and focusing on a particular issue,” Prof Hickie says. He says in the early 2000s Beyond Blue approached some NRL clubs to create mental health awareness, with little success.
“They didn’t really recognise the nature of the problem,” he says.
“It reflected a time and place where the level of community awareness was nothing like what it is now nor was the focus on young people.
“One of the problems is you see these incredibly fit and successful young people and make a wrong assumption that they’re fit in the head.
“I think the superhuman bit has changed. I don’t think sport is any less tough or rough than it ever was, players are still physically incredibly fit and fast but alongside that physical fitness and performance on the field, there’s a lot more attention to getting their head straight.
“We as a society have a long way to go but the fact we are on that journey now is very important.”
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 or beyondblue.org.au
Headspace: 1800 650 890 or headspace.org.au