VIDEO: Mental fitness program helps Rugby fans to ‘offload’

Published: Updated:

Mental health nurse Phil Cooper's burning desire is to stop boys and men sinking to the levels of despair that led rugby league international Terry Newton to take his own life at the age of just 31.

Newton, who hanged himself in 2010, had his contract terminated by Wakefield after being suspended for two years following a positive test for human growth hormone. The Great Britain player had fought a hidden battle with depression.

Now rugby league clubs in the northwest of England have joined in the battle to boost men's mental health through the innovative "Offload" program.

The project involves a number of clubs -- Salford Red Devils, Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings -- and charity Rugby League Cares, and is delivered by former players and officials at the clubs' stadiums.

The content is devised by the State of Mind charity, of which Cooper was a co-founder.

Cooper, who was honored by Queen Elizabeth II last year for his work, says combining his joint passions for mental health and sport is a "busman's holiday" but he is driven by his mission.

"We know of examples of people who changed their mind of taking their own life because they have been at a 'fixture' or been to see players speaking at schools and gone to seek help," Cooper tells AFP before an Offload "fixture" at Warrington Wolves.

"A mother of a child from one of those school talks came back four months later to thank us and say 'I got my son back'... it is a powerful image.

"It is a testament to what we do. If you don't do it for anything else but to prevent a suicide happening and if you can do that then it has a massive impact on the world. "That's just great isn't it?"

'Tangible change'

Cooper says the changing rooms of a Super League club where people come for "fixtures" is the ideal stigma-free environment, with dozens turning up on an evening when AFP had exclusive access.

The Samaritans charity, in its Suicide Statistics Report 2017, said the highest suicide rate in Britain was for men aged 40-44, with overall male rates about three times higher than those for women.

Cooper says there are several reasons for higher rates among men under 50.

"There are demographic factors, different areas of higher unemployment, industries changing over time.

"There is a societal image for men of course. Potentially they are supposed to be strong and deal with things but are reluctant to call for help.

"The suicide statistics are higher for men than women, with a 75-25 split, although the women's rate is rising too."

Cooper says the impact on attendees is startling when they listen to former professional players -- the Wolves session was facilitated by former Super League referee Ian Smith, who sparked a lively and varied discussion.

"When you have a 17-stone prop talking about his time struggling after injury, losing his house and his income and how that made him feel suicidal and how he overcame that through different techniques and by talking to people about how he felt, it has a massive impact on an audience," says Cooper. "You can see that tangible change."


Ian Lawton suffers from depression and was one of the first to attend a fixture at Warrington's ground -- it was brought to his attention by his daughter -- and the electrical maintenance engineer talks of the positive impact of the program.

"Being involved in the game as a spectator and somebody who has always followed the game, to actually hear it coming from people you could relate to because of rugby league made it even more special," lifelong Warrington fan Lawton tells AFP.

"Obviously, some of the discussions and the way of how they suffered and different mechanisms they have used to help and cope better benefited me and there are some mechanisms I am still using."

Smith, who found salvation through Offload after hitting a "wall" after years of abuse from spectators and cutting his ties with the Rugby Football League after almost two decades, says he feels "10-feet tall" after facilitating a fixture.

"I am no mental health expert, just a normal guy who through his love of the game and not having that thing in his life suffered a little bit," he says.

"There is a theme every week and sometimes we go off on ridiculous tangents but some of the guys in there are inspirational themselves."

ALSO: Syrian woman broadcasts suicide on Facebook

AND: Canadian doctors help 2,000 commit suicide in a year