On the brink: Former Rugby League star Danny Sculthorpe on his battle with depression
“I ended up on a car park in Wigan with a litre bottle of gin and a box full of pills, and I nearly did take my own life.”
As Danny Sculthorpe tells his story on how depression drove him to the brink of suicide, it sends shivers down the spine.
Rugby league is no stranger to stories like this though, and it was the death of his former team mate and best friend Terry Newton which made the sport stand up and take note of the severity of mental health problems.
Sculthorpe represented a number of clubs at the highest level, with Wigan Warriors and Castleford Tigers among those, and it is clear to see that his life was consumed by the sport.
“It’s been my job since leaving school,” he commented.
“I’ve played rugby league for 25 years and it is in my blood. It’s been a massive part of my life, from being a kid and making friends to going up through the professional ranks.
“It’s been my life really.”
A move to Bradford Bulls should have been the start of an exciting chapter of his life. Instead it signalled the beginning of his darkest period, as a back injury forced the prop forward to retire at 31, an age which should have saw him reaching his peak.
The injury stemmed from a training programme which he ‘shouldn’t have been given’ due to previous back injuries, and an infection after his initial operation led to surgery to remove a full disk from his spinal column.
“I couldn’t do anything for the next three or four months,” the 36-year-old recalled.
“All I could do was in the morning get out of bed and sit on my couch, then at night and get off my couch and get in bed.
“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even make it to the toilet.”
After three months of being house bound and unable to play the sport he so desperately loved, Bradford decided to terminate his contract.
Sculthorpe was without a job and eventually lost his house. That is when depression hit.
“I couldn’t get the thought of suicide out of my mind, as hard as I tried and no matter how much I wanted to I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
“Every single minute of every single hour of every single day was suicide.
“I did the typical bloke thing. I didn’t tell anyone about it until things escalated inside my head and I ended up on a car park in Wigan with a litre bottle of gin and a box full of pills, and I nearly did take my own life.
“I have no idea why I didn’t do it. I don’t know whether my kids and my family came into my head, I have no clue.”
Although he is unaware of the exact reason why he didn’t take his own life, he is certain that the close knit nature of his family played a massive part in his recovery and initial admittance to having a serious problem.
His wife and parents had noticed he wasn’t himself. He was no longer interacting with his kids and wasn’t ‘acting daft’ as he usually did.
When they finally quizzed him on how he was feeling, he opened up and let them in on his issues with depression. He lifted a massive weight from his shoulders that day, and avoided hurting the people he cared about so dearly.
“If I didn’t speak to my mum and my wife that day when they sat me down and made me speak about how I was feeling, not only would I have took my own life I’d have ruined my wife and my kids and my parents’ lives.”
One of the hardest periods of his life was the death of Terry Newton. It is obvious in the way he speaks about him that they were more than friends, it was as though they were brothers.
So that made the phone call he received while standing in the beer aisle of a local supermarket even harder to take, as current Huddersfield Giants half-back Danny Brough relayed the terrible news.
“It was absolutely tragic, it was awful and it was the worst day of my life when I heard about Terry.
“It was the worst news I’ve ever, ever had. He was my best mate.
“He used to come round and nick beer out of my garage and nick my lawn mower and stuff like that.
“We just used to have the craic and obviously we played together, and we were quite a similar kind of personality.
“We liked taking the piss out of each other and losing Terry was just awful.”
As a front rower, Danny’s career was about showing physical dominance over his opponents and giving his side a go forward in attack.
The sport as a whole has an image of toughness. Everyone who crosses that white line puts their body on the line for 80 minutes and needs to be physically and mentally strong.
He feels that players, including himself, are less likely to open up because of that, in fear of showing weakness.
“In rugby league, you’re always taught that if you’re injured you don’t show weakness because the opposition will exploit you.
“Rugby players, unfortunately, take that into their everyday lives and that’s exactly what I did.
“I was quite physical, some people used to call me dirty, but I was physical and I loved the physical side.
“So how could I speak to someone about struggling with my mental health?
“I felt like I couldn’t do it.
“But what I have come to realise is if guys can speak to their families, doctors, psychologists, councillors then it is more of a strength than a weakness.
“If you can actually open up it shows that you are a strong bloke.”
Emma Rosewarne is the RFL’s Welfare Director, and looks after the welfare of full-time professionals within the sport to ensure that when they leave rugby league they are in a mentally fit state to deal with the next chapter of their life.
She feels that players did struggle to come forward with problems in the past because they were scared of showing weakness due to the sport’s image, however now that issue is being addressed.
“The number of players that do come to us for help suggests that is not the case,” she admitted.
“I think that may have been the case but over the last few years that has really changed. We are chipping away at it.”
She also believes that another factor in the past was the naivety of society when considering mental health issues as a serious illness, yet that has also improved in recent years.
“I saw on a forum recently that someone was making comments about a player, saying I wouldn’t mind being depressed on that much money.
“I do think that is changing.
“In the last five years I think there has been a huge change in the way people talk about mental health in this country.”
State of Mind is a charity which was born out of the Terry Newton tragedy, and now Danny delivers talks to schools and clubs about how he overcame depression on their behalf.
When you listen to that story and how it has come around full circle, you wonder whether destiny played a part in the decision he made on that night, and on that carpark in Wigan.
“I sometimes think like that. Was I made for what I am doing right now?
“Being a physical prop, if I can speak about my feelings then anyone can.
“I think it might be destiny that I didn’t take my own life and that I should be helping others.
“That’s a positive that I look at and you’ve got to take positives from everything, and that’s exactly what I do.
“My life now is fantastic.
“I work for State of Mind, I work for the RFL, I’m on the disciplinary panel, I do workshops on betting and integrity.
“I’m busy, but I am enjoying life.”
With everything that happened at Bradford it would be easy for him to be bitter, but instead he insists that there isn’t a thing he would change as it made him who he is today.
And, he has some simple, yet effective, advice for those suffering from depression and anyone who is concerned about the wellbeing of a friend or relative.
“It’s pretty simple really. Don’t be scared of speaking to someone about it.
“Speaking is free, it doesn’t cost anything, but it is what saved my life.
“Talking to my counsellor and talking to my family is what saved my life.
“On the flip side of that, if you think someone else is struggling then don’t be scared to ask them.
“You don’t have to be a specialist in mental health to ask someone if they are okay.
“They might just want to release some things, like when I got that weight lifted off my shoulders they might feel exactly the same.
Danny I don’t know if you remember me but I was the Safety Officer when you played at Hornets. I have always been fit and healthy and held down 3 jobs ate a time. Recently I have gone through the mill health wise and it really p’s you off. I am more or less confined to the house and have often felt like ending my life. Then I think how bloody selfish is that. What about my wife n kids I would leave behind and what would it do to them. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I feel depressed but I just think of them and pull through it. We also moved to Cornwall and that has helped me. Good luck Danny and hope the future is bright for you mate.