Black and blue
Top players speaking out over mental health issues as times are changing
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
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.
Ardie Savea finally realised how much he needed to talk about emotions and feelings as a male.