The rugby world was shaken to the core earlier this year following the untimely and tragic death of former Australian international player Dan Vickermann. What was even more heartbreaking was finding out that the Cape Town-born rugby player died by suicide. It is in the wake of Dan Vickermann’s death that the SA Rugby Legends Association (SARLA) has decided to tackle mental health issues amongst rugby players.

According to the World Health Organisation, 350 million people worldwide are affected by mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental illness has caused many to suffer in silence and this often leads to suicide. Depression, or any form of mental illness, is not biased; even athletes who are thought to be strong and healthy are susceptible to crippling mental illness. SARLA is playing its part ensuring that mental health issues are taken seriously.

“We are starting to talk more openly about how depression and other mental illnesses can impact the well-being of athletes,” said SARLA CEO Stefan Terblanche. “Former rugby players and other sports professionals can be drastically affected, particularly when they transition from the locker room to the boardroom, or any life after sport. The change in lifestyle can be extremely difficult and we need to address these issues before we hear of any more deaths like Dan’s”, said Terblanche.

The Reality of Mental Health Issues Among Rugby Players

In 2015, the SA Rugby Legends Association, along with the SA Rugby Players Association, SA Rugby, the Union des Jouers de Rugby Professionals and the Irish Rugby Union Players Association participated in groundbreaking scientific research on this topic, making them some of the first rugby bodies to do so. The study was conducted by UCT’s Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, along with the University of Amsterdam’s Academic Centre for Evidence Based Sports Medicine and focused on emotional health issues amongst retired professional rugby players from France, Ireland and South Africa.

The study questionnaire allowed 295 former players between the ages of 35 to 48 to give honest and insightful feedback to researchers. Preliminary results showed a wide variety of emotional symptoms that had adversely affected participants since retiring, from symptoms of distress and depression to sleep disturbances, adverse alcohol use behaviour, smoking and poor eating habits.

“The findings were clearly an indication that not much is being done to identify potential mental health issues at an early stage of a professional’s career, or that much is being done at any level to address this”, said Terblanche. “As a retired professional player myself, I know what it is like to go from being much lauded and well-looked after in a team environment, to going out and managing your life on your own afterwards.”

“For some, the transition is manageable but for others who have literally stepped out of a school environment into the structures of a professional rugby club or team, it is not so easy,” Terblanche added.  “This is where organisations such as SARLA and SARPA are able to offer some guidance and assistance”.

Help is Available

Since its inception in 2001, one of the main aims of SARLA has been to support the needs and interests of former first-class rugby players. SARLA is concerned that even after the findings of the mental health study were released, nothing was implemented to help players who were struggling. Terblanche notes, “It is at a time like this that we are reminded of the objectives of SARLA and how we as an organisation need to do more to tackle this problem head on”.

SARLA, along with SARPA, has launched a 24-hour mental health helpline for any current and former players in need of assistance. The number is 0860 995 149 and mental health professionals are on hand to talk to callers and provide advice on how to proceed.

SARLA is reaching out to their rugby brothers and sisters and encouraging them to seek the help that they need. Anyone who feels distressed or in need of support is welcome to contact the help line.