Black and blue

Top play­ers speak­ing out over men­tal health is­sues as times are chang­ing

Weekend Herald - - News - Liam Napier

They’re in high-pres­sure roles with New Zealand’s eyes on them. The All Blacks open up on men­tal health is­sues.

Men­tal health and the All Blacks were not al­ways in­ter­twined, cer­tainly not as openly as this. Times are chang­ing. No longer are All Blacks ex­pected to solely em­body the im­age of gruff, stoic, hard Kiwi males.

Mul­lets and hun­ters re­main com­mon but oth­ers ex­changed gum­boots for fash­ion­able threads and kicks.

As tech­nol­ogy rapidly changes the face of daily in­ter­ac­tion, rugby play­ers con­tinue to evolve.

Hav­ing the courage to speak hon­estly about emo­tions; be­ing au­then­ti­cally vul­ner­a­ble and sim­ply car­ing for each other of­fer a snap­shot of mes­sages lead­ing All Blacks now feel com­pelled to share.

These days, they know one in five New Zealan­ders suf­fer some form of stress, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. That’s three in ev­ery start­ing rugby team, al­most five in ev­ery match-day squad at all lev­els.

Play­ers are also aware of statis­tics such as those re­leased in Au­gust which re­veal New Zealand’s sui­cide rate is the high­est since records be­gan, with 668 tak­ing their lives in the past year.

Ath­letes are no less im­pen­e­tra­ble to dark times than oth­ers. Those at the top of their fields are ex­posed to more pres­sures than most but many are also be­gin­ning to grasp the pos­i­tive power their pop­u­lar­ity holds.

Nehe Mil­ner-Skud­der, Sonny Bill Wil­liams and Ardie Savea, in a 10-minute video posted to Face­book dur­ing men­tal health aware­ness week, were among those to drop cliche walls and talk openly about

chal­lenges re­cently.

An­ton Lienert-Brown en­cap­su­lates the dis­cus­sion when, in the video, he says striv­ing to be per­fect doesn’t make you happy. He notes he grew up be­liev­ing All Blacks had ev­ery­thing; no trou­bles in their lives.

“That’s a lie — a to­tal mis­con­cep­tion,” says Lienert-Brown, the Chiefs mid­fielder. “Ev­ery­one is a hu­man and ev­ery­one needs some­one by their side.

“We can open up to each other, be vul­ner­a­ble and share that love and know that your mate be­side you might be go­ing through some­thing. Just ask.”

That’s a pow­er­ful mes­sage from any 23-year-old, let alone one in his po­si­tion.

Shar­ing such sen­ti­ment helps break down stig­mas and hu­man­ise on­go­ing men­tal health bat­tles.

On the re­cent north­ern tour the

Week­end Her­ald sat down with Savea and TJ Per­e­nara to dis­cuss the rea­son­ing be­hind this move­ment from a grow­ing group of All Blacks.

For Savea, the cat­a­lyst ar­rived two years ago, when he fi­nally agreed to join some of his clos­est friends at a meet­ing or­gan­ised by Welling­ton men’s group O-raize.

Since then, Savea has be­come a new man. Meet­ings around re­leas­ing bur­dens to strengthen oth­ers through com­mon­al­ity em­pow­ered him to open a fresh page in his life.

“My first re­ac­tion was the typ­i­cal deny, I don’t need that, but after a while I thought, ‘what can I lose?’” Savea said.

“I went and that’s when it changed my whole per­spec­tive on things. From that group, I re­alised how much I needed to talk about emo­tions and feel­ings as a male, and that was an op­por­tu­nity for me to do it each week. It was awe­some, and the fi­ance was lov­ing it, too, be­cause I was talk­ing to her more about things on a deeper level.

“It wasn’t nor­mal for our friends to talk on an emo­tional level. Once we started that, it made things bet­ter. Not just our re­la­tion­ships, but things at home. Ever since that, I’ve re­alised how im­por­tant it was to talk.”

Learn­ing to open up also sparked changes in the way Savea con­nects with the pub­lic.

Pro ath­letes’ so­cial plat­forms are dom­i­nated by pro­mot­ing prod­ucts, the reach they com­mand highly valu­able for global brands. Drop a post here, re­ceive some free kit or pay­ment there, is of­ten the way.

Savea has his own cloth­ing la­bel, yet many re­cent in­ter­ac­tions cen­tre on the need for per­sonal growth.

“The feed­back I get is amaz­ing — from males to teenagers that are go­ing through things I’m post­ing about. It’s awe­some be­cause it is help­ing them out. Those lit­tle things I get touched by more than try­ing to sell a prod­uct.

“The older I’ve grown, the more I’ve seen what’s im­por­tant, and wanted to use my plat­form to bet­ter my so­ci­ety and my com­mu­nity.”

Daugh­ter Kobe, al­most one, is an­other con­stant re­minder to im­prove.

“The cir­cle has be­come very close and that prob­a­bly comes down to the birth of my daugh­ter. See­ing her grow up, it gives you a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on life and what is im­por­tant. I’m just try­ing to do my bit.”

Per­e­nara, now a six-year All Blacks vet­eran, is an­other to al­ter his out­look in or­der to reach out and help oth­ers more.

He sees im­pres­sion­able youth heav­ily in­flu­enced by so­cial me­dia and tele­vi­sion. He notes this im­age cul­ture fu­elling the need for the lat­est, must-have prod­uct and how so of­ten that is so far re­moved from real­ity.

“They are fed this in­for­ma­tion and that be­comes an ex­pec­ta­tion for them,” Per­e­nara says. “When their life doesn’t look that way, it can cre­ate emo­tions.”

Tra­di­tional Kiwi males were — in some in­stances still are — ex­pected to with­stand all ob­sta­cles and stand strong. Ul­ti­mately this can con­coct a dan­ger­ous cock­tail of suf­fo­cat­ing rather than con­fronting emo­tions.

Per­e­nara was raised this way. By no means is he alone, though. In many re­spects, this ma­cho at­ti­tude is gen­er­a­tional.

“This is no knock on my fam­ily or the peo­ple who helped bring me up but we were told to harden up a lot of the time. That’s all I knew.

“I didn’t see any­thing wrong with it at the time and I took a lit­tle bit of that into my ca­reer early on. If things dis­ap­pointed me through in­jury, se­lec­tion, poor per­for­mances or when I used to read me­dia, I would bot­tle that and try to harden up and move on be­cause I was told that’s what a man did.

“I feel that took me to some darker spots through­out my ca­reer, if I wasn’t play­ing well and not be­ing able to ex­press those feel­ings through to fear of shame, em­bar­rass­ment is def­i­nitely not the right mes­sage to be send­ing.

“Over the last few years still go­ing through those same emo­tions, but be­ing able to ex­press those feel­ings, I feel like that’s helped me a lot to be­come a bet­ter player and a bet­ter per­son.”

In one ex­am­ple of push­ing pos­i­tive change, Per­e­nara put him­self out there this year by us­ing his pro­file to sup­port the LGBT com­mu­nity.

“The mes­sage I want to be send­ing is di­ver­sity is im­por­tant and ac­cept­ing peo­ple for who they are is im­por­tant. Ev­ery­one has the right to be the per­son they are.”

For each per­son Per­e­nara reaches in the world of the name­less and face­less, there is al­ways some­one ready and wait­ing to fire back.

“I’m not try­ing to pro­mote ha­tred, vi­o­lence or bring­ing peo­ple down. I’m try­ing to up­lift and pro­mote love. That’s where I push my en­ergy but you can’t just lie and say you ab­sorb all the pos­i­tive stuff and by­pass any neg­a­tives.

“If you see it, it has at least a sub­con­scious im­pact on you as a hu­man. Be­ing able to have that con­ver­sa­tion and ac­knowl­edge I’m a bit gut­ted some­one said that is healthy.

“I should feel that; I should talk about that and it has helped me.”

Per­e­nara, for ex­am­ple, hopes fel­low All Blacks half­back Te Toiroa Tahu­ri­o­rangi feels more com­fort­able than he did at the start of his ca­reer.

“We’re not just an en­vi­ron­ment where we want to per­form on a Satur­day and be the best team in the world. That’s def­i­nitely part of us and that’s im­por­tant but we’re away from home a lot — this is six weeks on the road now — and we be­come a fam­ily here.

“If we can’t share our feel­ings and our emo­tions, es­pe­cially be­ing away from fam­ily, that can be a kryp­tonite en­vi­ron­ment and start to be can­cer­ous and bring teams down, so we need to cre­ate that en­vi­ron­ment where peo­ple can speak,” Per­e­nara told the Week­end Her­ald.

In­side and out of the All Blacks, the mes­sage is the same: reach out and talk. Be real. Be hon­est. Be open. Vul­ner­a­bil­ity is nat­u­ral — even for those idolised.

Photo / Photosport

Ardie Savea fi­nally re­alised how much he needed to talk about emo­tions and feel­ings as a male.

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