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State of Mind: Five years of raising awareness of metal health problems in rugby league

For the past five years State of Mind has been asking one question. What’s yours?

The charity was set-up following the tragic death of Terry Newton by Dr Phil Cooper, a Nurse Consultant in Dual Diagnosis at 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Foundation Trust,  and Ernie Benbow, a former Director of Resources for NHS Trusts.

Their aim is to improve the mental health, wellbeing and working life of rugby league players and communities, by raising awareness and educating the public through their free sessions.

Since 2011 the Super League have dedicated a round of fixtures to the charity, making rugby league the first sport in the UK to have a themed round of fixtures for mental wellbeing.

Journalist James Gordon joined the team a year into this ground-breaking initiative after a discussion with one of the charities co-founders.

“I think they had one themed round the year before I got involved and they used a Liverpool agency to do it,” he explained, “and they didn’t get much reach with it so I think Ernie thought getting me involved would help.

“I had a few discussions with them and it went from there.

“Mental health is perhaps something I have struggled with myself, so I suppose that is another indirect reason for me remaining involved.”

James runs his own company JDG Media, which is a digital sport content provider and publisher, and also created popular website www.loverugbyleague.com back in 2005 while he was a student.

He covers a number of different sports, which includes UK basketball and ice hockey, and although his initial role with the charity was limited to content production, he is now heavily involved in State of Mind.

“My first involvement was to run the media and PR around the themed round, that is how I initially got involved, but I have sat on the operational board since.

“We meet once a month just to talk generally about the strategy of State of Mind.

“It has obviously changed a bit since I first got involved.

“Initially it was a group of individuals, whereas now it’s a fully registered charity which means there are a few more constitutional hoops to jump through now.

“So, my initial involvement was on a media and PR side, but now I am very much involved in the ideas and discussions around everything we do really.”

Since their inception in 2011, the issue of mental health problems in the sport has been addressed by clubs and the RFL.

The charity has been a prominent force in raising awareness of these issues and encouraging people within the sport to talk about their problems, rather than seeing it as a sign of weakness.

“I think it is more prominent than it was five years ago,” he continued.

“There is a lot more awareness of it now and more education around it, there probably could be more but that is why these charities exist.

“I think there is a lot more sympathy for people that suffer from depression, and basically it is about trying to remove that stigma from people that it isn’t a sign of weakness to admit you are struggling.

“The Terry Newton incident was the catalyst behind it all really, and you only have to speak to people who are close to him and they wish he had spoken to them about his problems.

“There’s not a quick fix to it, it’s just about making people feel comfortable and understand that speaking to someone can help you.”

A huge part of their work involves interacting with schools, colleges and Super League academies to help educate youngsters in mental health and wellbeing.

He feels that it is massively important that they are made aware of depression and how it can be treated, so that they can talk about their feelings openly and overcome any problems they may encounter.

“If you know from an early age that you can talk about mental health then it is a positive, especially now because young people are under so much pressure with social media.

“Your whole life is being presented to the whole world and I dread to think what it is like to be a kid now, because you are one mistake from making a right idiot of yourself.

“They do a lot of work with the academies at clubs, and it’s a lot harder to change someone’s attitude when they are a lot older, rather than someone who is 15 or 16.”

Although James doesn’t deliver talks personally, he feels honoured to be a part of the team and is proud of the work they are doing across the UK.

“It’s not so much me that is helping, it’s the people like Phil Cooper, Danny Sculthorpe and Will Stringer who are going out and giving these talks.

“My role is to publicise the fantastic work that those guys are doing really.

“I feel privileged to be involved with State of Mind and to be working alongside people that are in it, and I guess it is very rewarding for people like Phil when someone comes up and says that it has helped them.

“If I can help spread the word about the work those guys are doing then that’s brilliant.”

Danny Sculthorpe’s battle with depression is well publicised, and the former professional rugby league prop forward now delivers talks on how he beat his demons, on behalf of the charity.

He recalls a trip to Wakefield during one of the earlier State of Mind themed rounds in Super League, where a woman approached co-founder Phil Cooper with a man who had been suffering from depression due to the recent suicide of his son.

“Phil sat him down and gave him some advice on family bereavement and dealing with depression,” revealed Sculthorpe.

“He was a bit worried because normally he can chase how his patients are doing but he had just walked off into the crowd and Phil didn’t know what was going to happen.

“We were putting the marquee down at the end of the game, and he came back on his own and said to Phil ‘I’d just like to thank you, this was going to be my last ever rugby league match, I was going to kill myself tonight’.”

The story doesn’t end there though, as they returned to the club 12 months later to be greeted by the same man that they had helped on their previous visit.

“He came up to Phil and thanked him for all of his advice, gave him a big cuddle and said his other son has just had a baby and that he is going to be a granddad.

“Stories like that just make everything worthwhile.

“If we can save one person’s life then we have done our job, and we know we have saved a lot more than one life already.”

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