'It's OK to talk' - NZ Rugby, Mealamu share mental health message

Keven Mealamu has been there and seen them - the mental health issues that affect professional rugby players under pressure.

Only a month ago, the game was dealing with the sudden death, under "no suspicious circumstances", of veteran Australian lock Dan Vickerman, who was known to be struggling with life after rugby.

But New Zealand Rugby's new "Headfirst" campaign is an acknowledgement that the code has an important role in educating society in general around the causes, the symptoms and possible solutions to this affliction.

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"The website is just launching today, but it's actually something that has been done in the professional space and age group rugby for a while," says 132-test All Black hooker Mealamu.

"Now we're trying to raise this awareness, not just in professional rugby, but for everyone in the rugby circle and everyone in general.

"It's awesome that the rugby union has taken an initiative like this and we can take it to everyone."

Mealamu admits he has had to face his own demons over his career, and has seen more than his share of team-mates struggle under the burden of public and private expectation at the highest level.

"Playing at such a high level for such a long time, you go through a lot of rollercoasters, both physical and emotional," he says. "At various times, I've been under a lot of stress, but I've just been lucky to have good support structures around me, which has always been my family.

"They've been there to talk to, and I'm struggling, sometimes they pick up on my body language and the little signals. I've been really lucky to have good people around me."

While he hasn't experienced mental health problems to the same extremes as Vickerman, Mealamu has definitely seen the signs in those around him and insists that, while these traits are often regarded as "rugby issues", they are to be found in the wider community.

The "Headfirst" website and social media campaign is an attempt to share rugby's existing and developing resources with society itself.

"Sometimes, when you see a drop in form, it's not always rugby based," says Mealamu. "It may be something that's happening off the field.

"Sometimes, the examples you see come when they're looking for outlets and people may start drinking a lot. Those things I see, especially in the professional game, and I'm not using it as an excuse, but you understand what really is the problem - it's their mental health and stress.

"If they don't have the courage to talk to you, you just have to ask them how they are, take them for a coffee."

With more than 170,000 participants through the country, rugby has become an essential part of the New Zealand fabric and, as such, is uniquely placed to address an issue that challenges everyone at some stage. Our youth suicide rates are among the highest in the world, with males and Maori/Polynesians over-represented among statistics.

"We're in a really good place to be able to influence," says Mealamu. "I think it's awesome we're able to spread the word around and get into, not just professional rugby, but to everyone."

And the bottom line - the message that high-profile rugby performers like Mealamu, All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith, Black Ferns Sevens player Ruby Tui and international referee Chris Pollock is spreading today...

"We trying to make people aware it's OK to talk about it," says Mealamu. "When you talk about rugby, we're perceived as tough people and it's often perceived that it's weak to talk.

"We're trying to let people know it's not."

- NZ Herald

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