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Ex-Rugby Star Explains ‘Devastating’ Impacts Of Failure To Discuss Mental Health In Male-Dominated Spaces

by : Niamh Shackleton on : 23 Jul 2021 17:50
Ex-Rugby Star Explains 'Devastating' Impacts Of Failure To Discuss Mental Health In Male-Dominated SpacesSupplied/PA Images

Ex-professional rugby league player Jamie Acton saw his career ground to halt in 2019 after sustaining a serious neck injury and, as a result, saw his mental health deteriorate.

In the wake of his mental health battles, Jamie has spoken to UNILAD about opening up despite having once been part of one of the world’s most stereotypically masculine sports.

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Jamie explained that he was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, but back then the condition wasn’t understood as well as it is now, and he was simply branded as ‘naughty’ at school.

It was at school he discovered his love of rugby and found he used exercise as a way to be ‘present’. Jamie explained, ‘What I tend to find was I was really naughty at school and I had all these problems, but when I exercised, specifically playing rugby, I was able to be present. I think people will be able to resonate in some capacity with other practical activities such as art, or music, where they can clear their mindset and have that sense of mindfulness.’

Leigh Centurions Jamie Acton (left) during the Super League match at Leigh Sports Village. (PA)PA Images

While rugby initially helped his mental health, after pursuing it as a career, Jamie found that the sport began to negatively impact his mindset.

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Discussing his rugby career and his neck injury, he explained:

I carried [rugby] on and ended up making a living out of it, but I was never aware that it was having such a massive impact on my mental wellbeing. When it became my living as a rugby player, you’re doing it day in, day out, so it’s constantly keeping you in that spirit because there’s a high-end, elite sort of focus, and, long story short, I broke my neck 18 months ago and I had to retire early.

[…] It knocked me for six. I felt like part of me had died and that I was mourning a sense of myself as a rugby player. As a sportsman, you become ‘Jamie the rugby player’, the same way you might become ‘Dr. Acton’ if you’re in the medical profession. It’s what people talk to you about, it’s what people ask you about, and as soon as you lose that, you question who you are.

It was then that Jamie saw a decline in his mental health and said he ‘didn’t want to be around anymore’ as a result. Despite feeling ‘genuinely suicidal’, Jamie knew he wanted to stick around to see his children growing up, so this stopped him from taking his own life.

He credits his family support network for helping him through such a difficult period in his life.

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In the wake of his mental health battles, Jamie has spoken out about the ‘masculine culture’ there is in rugby, and how it isn’t really a space that welcomes men to speak about how they’re feeling.

He explained:

I think rugby is one of those cultures where you don’t talk about feelings. In masculine culture, like the services maybe and certain businesses that are male-dominated, you are looked at like you’re a bit soft if someone went, ‘How are you today?’, and you went, ‘Oh well my mental health hasn’t been good.’ People don’t really care what’s on your mind, they just want that small conversation.

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‘That can be devastating in the long term’, Jamie continued, ‘Because you create this culture where you don’t talk, you’re not honest, and you don’t open up. These are the things I started to realise and thought, I can talk to my friends & family who are supporting me and I wasn’t being judged – they still loved me, they still cared for me – and that’s when I thought, OK, this is going to be alright.’

In light of this, Jamie realised he wasn’t alone in feeling this way and it was likely many other men had been through similar experiences ‘maybe not as an ex-rugby player, but in some other capacity’.

Jamie Acton (Supplied)Supplied

He said, ‘I thought there would be a few, but I had no idea that my words, my values and my opinions would be shared by my peers. It was overwhelming.

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‘If you saw me on the street, you probably wouldn’t want to bump into me in a dark alley,’ Jamie added, ‘But, you know, that doesn’t mean you can’t cry, and you can’t be upset. These are completely normal emotions that I lived in fear for so long of having.’

Jamie has since expressed his belief that people should be taught how to deal with difficult periods in life in schools, especially young men. He himself has been into high schools and directly spoken to teenage boys about how showing your emotions and struggling with your mental health doesn’t make you any less masculine.

The ex-rugby player said:

You don’t get taught about these problems, and that’s the big issue. Because we’re not opening up this conversation at a very young age with young men – I’m talking teenagers – you get taught in rugby context how to put someone’s head in a tackle, how to pass a ball. You don’t get taught how to deal with 1,000 people commenting on your Facebook page when you’ve had a bad game, and you don’t get taught how to deal with being booed. You also don’t get taught how to be out of the sport for months on end because of a serious injury. […] You end up with this hyper-focused group of men who don’t talk about their problems in fear of it affecting their job and coming across as ‘soft’.

[…] The skills to deal with these things, and other life events, should be taught from the ages of 13 onwards. So, regardless of whether you become a rugby player or not, or if you get injured, these skills to deal with difficult times are there.

‘Things are definitely improving, but we still need to shout it from the rooftops,’ Jamie added.

As well as being a verbal mental health advocate, Jamie has created an app called Banish which prides itself on being ‘the UK’s first fitness platform focused on supporting and improving mental wellness through exercise’.

Jamie Acton (Supplied)Supplied

Speaking about the app and using exercise to help your mental health, he said, ‘There’s data that proves that exercise can definitely improve your physiological health in terms of improving your endorphins, improving your hormonal balance, and changing the way your brain acts. If you can have that recognition of doing something difficult – for example doing a difficult workout – something that you didn’t want to do, but you did it anyway, that sense of recognition of success can motivate you to go to do something else difficult; which might actually be getting out of bed and going to work. It can be a real trigger to start a positive spiral.’

A pilot programme earlier this year found that 78% of users felt more in control of their mental demons after using the app, while 91% said Banish helped them identify how they were feeling and showed how positively exercise impacted their mood.

However, Jamie added that he doesn’t think the app is there to ‘cure mental health problems’ and, despite having specialists on board to make the app’s content credible, he felt it was important to say that exercise ‘isn’t the only tool’ people can use as there are ‘so many out there’ to help peoples’ mental health.

If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.

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Niamh Shackleton

Niamh Shackleton is a pint sized person and journalist at UNILAD. After studying Multimedia Journalism at the University of Salford, she did a year at Caters News Agency as a features writer in Birmingham before deciding that Manchester is (arguably) one of the best places in the world, and therefore moved back up north. She's also UNILAD's unofficial crazy animal lady.

Topics: Featured, exercise, Mental Health, no-article-matching, Rugby, Sport