Greg Inglis has injured nearly every muscle, bone and ligament in his body. He’s a walking medical miracle who typifies the physical and mental strength needed to succeed in the NRL.
When he flies down the left-hand touchline, you expect him to extend his right arm, palming off the nearest defender, before crossing the line and unleashing his trademark goanna crawl.
But the champion’s winning ways and easy smile have hidden a desperate inner battle.
For years, when injury has consigned him to crutches, Inglis hid his inner turmoil behind his soft-spoken cheekiness. To the outside world he appeared fine.
In March, Inglis tore his ACL in round one, effectively ending his season. At 30, he doesn’t have many left. What he calls his career is fast coming to a close.
Now, it seems his run of injuries could be taking a toll on the Queensland outside back’s mental health, after he admitted himself to hospital due to mental health concerns.
Earlier this year, Darius Boyd opened up about his struggle to deal with personal grief and the career-ending injury of good friend and teammate, Alex McKinnon.
Other NRL stars such as Brett Finch and Dan Hunt have sought help in the past. Athletes from other codes have struggled too - Buddy Franklin, Ian Thorpe and Matthew Mitcham have all opened up about their mental health problems. Sadly some don’t find help in time: Wallaby Dan Vickerman tragically lost his personal battle.
Mental illness in sport is rife but rarely talked about because athletes fear they’ll be seen as weak. Inglis’ admission speaks volumes about the mental wellbeing of popular sportsmen. Success doesn’t necessarily translate to emotional health.
According to a study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 46 per cent of athletes have experienced symptoms of at least one mental health problem. That’s nearly one in every two sportsmen facing daily mental struggles.
These include depression (27.2 per cent), eating disorder (22 per cent), general psychological distress (16.5 per cent), social anxiety (14 per cent), generalised anxiety disorder (7.1 per cent) and panic disorder (4.5 per cent). Injured athletes were more likely to show higher levels of symptoms of both depression and generalised anxiety disorder.
But perhaps the tide is beginning to turn. When Boyd confronted his personal anguish so publicly, it encouraged others to do the same, reckons coach and close friend Wayne Bennett.
“He was so open about it. He didn’t hide it and now he is a changed bloke. He is a pathfinder in some ways for the other players,” Bennett says.
By checking himself into a mental rehab facility Inglis has echoed Boyd’s message to all athletes and anyone going through a tough time: it’s OK to say you’re not OK. A sign of weakness has become a sign of strength.
Fittingly, Inglis is an ambassador for the NRL’s State of Mind campaign, a project that encourages players to speak up about mental health issues and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
That message extends to society as a whole. As Boyd points out, mental illness in sport shouldn’t be treated more seriously than it is in the community at large, but rather we should all unite to fight a common enemy.
“Mental illness can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. It’s not a Rugby League issue; it’s a society issue,” Boyd said on the NRL State Of Mind website.
“It’s important that we all work together to encourage people of all ages to speak out when they are feeling vulnerable.”
The Numbers Game
1 in 8
The number of men who will suffer depression during their lifetime
The most common age for a person to experience their first episode of mental illness
The percentage of the roughly 2,500 suicides in Australia each year that are committed by men
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