Former Wallaby Justin Harrison - 'A stranger saved me from suicide'

By Gavin Mairs of the Telegraph

Former Australian lock Justin Harrison. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Former Australian lock Justin Harrison. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Justin Harrison, the former Australia forward, considered suicide during his playing career following the breakdown of his first marriage.

Harrison, who is famous for stealing the decisive line-out in the final minutes of the third Test against the British and Irish Lions on his debut for Australia in 2001, says it was only a chance meeting with a stranger in a bar in New York that rescued him from "thinking about things that no human should".

It was during a three-year spell at Ulster that Harrison found his life spiralling out of control as he turned to a destructive cocktail of alcohol, sleeping tablets and anti-depressant pills.

His marriage had broken down within months of joining the Irish province in 2005 and despite captaining the side in the final match of the season that clinched the Celtic League title, he found his life unravelling as he coped with what his saw as the first failure of his life.

"My relationship wasn't right but it was a real shock for it to fail," he said. "I had great support from Ulster but my focus became on anything but what it should have been on and it became a daily wrestle with not wanting to get out of bed or see anyone.

"For a period of time I was looking for answers in all the wrong places. It became easier to drink to forget, it became easier to justify taking sleeping tablets because then I had less chance of dreaming or remembering my dreams.

"At the time I was really fearful of going to sleep because I had no control over my dreams. Then there was the time when I had anti-depressants, and was mixing all sorts of medicines with alcohol. It was a cocktail of confusion and greyness.

"Time became irrelevant but also a real burden because I ended up wishing my life away. I would get through a day and then the next would come I would think, 'I have got to get through this all again' and didn't want to be part of it any more."

Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby who was then in charge of Ulster, allowed Harrison to return to Australia at the end of the season to try to sort out his personal life and offered to release him from his contract. With his marriage over, Harrison however, returned for the next season.

Yet by Christmas, his world was falling apart. He started to see a counsellor and psychologist, with a particular focus on managing his free time, when he was most at risk.

But that summer, when he travelled to New York on his own for a break, he hit a new low, only to saved by an Australian called Peter Maiden who recognised him.

"When I was at the bar I was thinking, 'You have had a good stint, you are not really needed any more'," Harrison said. "I didn't have family or kids so I just felt it was just me and I was entitled to make the decision and didn't really think about anything other than wishing that I didn't have to wrestle with it any more.

"I was in the bar watching some sport when Peter came over. He asked what I was doing and explained it to him and about two or three hours later we had got across most of the things that I had done and was contemplating doing and he was with me for the next two weeks I stayed in New York.

"All of a sudden I had someone to keep me busy and keep me out of that thought pattern. It is the power of friendships. I call him my 'little brother' and have stayed in touch ever since. He is getting married in New York in August and I will go over."

The intervention changed everything. Harrison returned to Ulster with hope replacing despair and now, 10 years on, he has remarried and lives happily in France with two sons.

Yet when he heard of the death of his former Wallaby team-mate Dan Vickerman, who took his own life in February, Harrison felt compelled to act. Along with former Saracens and England prop Matt Stevens, his former team-mate at Bath, Harrison wanted to encourage the rugby community to confront mental health issues. The result is an all-star game at Allianz Park on June 30 in support of Restart Rugby, the official charity of the Rugby Players' Association and its #LiftTheWeight campaign aimed at raising awareness of mental health.

"I understood there had been a battle that Vicks was going through and that he couldn't see any way out of," Harrison. "He had no solutions other than what was in front of him. It just makes you really sad that someone thinks the only solution is to not be there any more.

"There is no way of knowing when or how that was ever going to happen. We all need to have very uncomfortable conversations now for it to be anywhere near meaningful and substantial change for people who are contemplating things or feeling alone.

"If we can use one of the most powerful mafias in the world - the rugby family - to reach out and nurture and give sense of belonging and a community feel to it, I am happy to admit that I was in a stage of my life where I was extremely weak and thought about things that no human should. Striving for life should always outweigh ending it."

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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