Illustration by Oliver Macdonald Oulds
Sports don’t get more macho than Rugby League. But perhaps surprisingly, the English Rugby league community is setting an example to the rest of the sports world on how to support players’ emotional well being. We brought together two retired players – the biggest hitters in grassroots campaigning – to understand more.
Last year, after injury took him out of Rugby League, Danny Sculthorpe lost his job, his house and had thoughts of suicide. One conversation with this family turned things around. He’s now heavy involved with campaigning for State Of Mind, a charity promoting sport and mental well being. He gives inspiring talks in schools and clubs around the country.
Ex-pro Luke is the main man behind last year’s massive #ItsOkToTalk suicide awareness campaign. He lost his brother-in-law Andy to suicide in 2016, motivating him to set up a group talking session for men, #ANDYSMANCLUB. It’s grown so quickly within a year that the government nodded to it alongside State Of Mind as part of its official suicide-prevention strategy.
Luke: What would you say the trigger was for you in becoming suicidal?
Danny: Constant unbearable pain, I couldn’t move about after injury, which made me feel a burden to my family. It lowered my self-esteem. My ability to support them was taken away and I felt a future career with earning power was gone. I lost all hope and couldn’t get involved with family activities or do the usual day-to-day things. A big thing for me was that I couldn’t exercise.
Luke: What was the key in helping you move forward and still being with us today?
Danny: The biggest reason I’m still here is definitely my family and their incredible understanding and support. Talking, talking and talking was so vital to me. Whether a chat with my parents, my wife, a brother or mate, or with a counsellor. Head Of Welfare at the Rugby Football League was a great support, organising my counselling and offering me roles within the sport made a huge difference. I also had a close relationship with my GP who described anti-depressant medication, which really helped me.
The biggest reason I’m still here is definitely my family and their incredible understanding and support. Talking, talking and talking was so vital to me.
Danny: How is your own mental health since you released the pressure of being a professional sportsman?
Luke: It’s definitely improved. I know it’s the opposite for many. I have a speaking and emotional wellbeing business for 5 years now and I found myself wanting to focus more on that. The explosion of #ANDYSMANCLUB combined with a growing business and family made it all hard to balance. Taking the plunge to quit professional rugby was a big decision. I gave up all guaranteed income, but it’s worked because I believed in it and I have a wonderful partner, Lisa Roberts, who supports me and allows me to live my dream. I think when anyone feels or finds their purpose it makes them happier. I would encourage anyone reading this to take a risk and chase your dreams. So in brief, yes, much happier.
Danny: What are your biggest antidepressants?
Luke: I would say talking and music. I use #ANDYSMANCLUB myself. When I was struggling with pay cuts and a few other issues at my rugby club earlier in the year, the club really helped me. It gave me a place to offload in a non-judgemental environment and even now I use it every week as it’s good to just talk and meet new people. Music is always good too as it guides you through emotions from pumped up, to happy, to relaxed, even just quieting the mind.
Luke: You are a very inspirational speaker, what motivates you to get up and tell your story?
Danny: That I can help others who are maybe experiencing similar problems. They can learn from and be encouraged by my example of speaking openly. I’m also maintaining my own mental well-being by connecting with like minded others, developing my knowledge, skills and self confidence. It’s opened up new opportunities for personal development and potential employment options.
Danny: What did you think of Piers Morgan saying men need to ‘man up’, instead of opening up?
Luke: That idea will hopefully become a thing of the past. I think the perception needs to change and is changing. The hard work that’s been done by a variety of organisations is first class and we need the support of these so-called influential people. I think at one time it would’ve been extremely damaging but the response he received was great. People disagreed and got stuck in to him. People really got passionate and showed him that what this ‘man up’ idea was completely wrong.
At one time Piers Morgan’s comments about ‘manning up’ would’ve been extremely damaging but the response he received was great. People stuck in to him.
Luke: Now you’re retired, do you miss the game and if so have you found anything that fills the void? A lot of players struggle with identity when leaving the game and question who they are. What advice would you give to players out there who have left the game either in or out of their control?
Danny: I don’t miss playing but I do really miss the craic in the changing rooms. Coaching under 9s helps me stay involved. I can positively influence the rugby league culture. My involvement at different levels of the game ie disciplinary committee, integrity and betting workshops and my work with State Of Mind keeps me involved. I regularly meet players, former players, fans and officials. My advice would be to find a positive activity that can bring connections and satisfactions. Look outwards and not inwards and seek to add to your skills and knowledge. And physical exercise. It lifts mood lifts mood, reduces stress and anxiety and it gives you more energy.
Danny: How does it feel to know you’ve changed people’s minds about suicide?
Luke: It’s massively satisfying. Halifax alone has had over 400 men use the group in less than a year and our groups around the UK are up to around 15. We have 7 active community groups with 4 more about to launch. We have 2 in colleges and one starting with the Yorkshire Emergency Services. We have a group in prison, with an aim to roll out across the whole prison estate throughout the country. Everyone involved with #ANDYSMANCLUB including myself are volunteers so it’s really rewarding to see such an impact made in Andy’s name. His mum Elaine works tirelessly on this and does so much of the stuff no one sees. She’s an inspiration, I’m blessed to have her on this journey.
Everyone involved with #ANDYSMANCLUB including myself are volunteers so it’s really rewarding to see such an impact made in Andy’s name.
People message because they’ve seen our #ITSOKAYTOTALK campaign or other stuff we’ve put out and tell us how it’s saved their life. I get no greater satisfaction. Success to me is the number of people’s lives you can impact in your time here. I will keep that thought in my head until I die. If we can keep growing what we are doing and helping people it’s worth all the sleepless nights and long days!
Our goal is to make ANDYSMANCLUB accessible for all – we’ve had people message from Delhi, New York, Australia and more. We’d love to take this global but we’ve a big job to do here in the UK first.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article or in the comments below, are not those held by CALM or its Trustees unless stated, and liability cannot be accepted for such comments. We encourage friendly and constructive debate, but please don't share personal contact details when commenting and exercise caution when considering any advice offered by others. We don’t allow abusive, offensive or inappropriate comments or comments that could be interpreted as libellous, defamatory or commercial and we will remove these without warning as and when we find them.