The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand has labelled comments linking referee Matt Cecchin's previous mental health issues and his performance in last week's Rugby League World Cup semifinal between Tonga and England as an "unnecessary, cheap shot."
Auckland-based Tongan lawyer Nalesoni Tupou raised concerns about Cecchin's 'mental fitness' to perform his role, given his previous history of mental health issues, in a letter to the Rugby League International Federation, as part of an attempt earlier this week to get the result overturned.
But a spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand said the comments were highly damaging.
"These kind of attacks are unfair and really disappointing in 2017," said Sophia Graham.
"We should be better than this. When people talk like this, it pushes people back into the shadows."
Tonga was knocked out of the World Cup in controversial circumstances last week, when Cecchin decided not to seek the assistance of the video referee to determine if Andrew Fifita had scored a legitimate try in the last play of the game, with Tonga trailing 20-18.
Cecchin's failure to allow technology to be used sparked widespread protests throughout Auckland, as well as an online petition signed by tens of thousands.
Tupou, who stressed he was acting as an individual, took things one step further by filing a six-page formal expression of concern in relation to several aspects of Cecchin's decision.
Tupou opined that Cecchin was negligent in not referring the decision upstairs, and also mentioned previous high profile mistakes committed by Cecchin in an NRL game between the Broncos and the Roosters in 2012.
But his most inflammatory comments were made around Cecchin's previously publicised mental health issues.
Cecchin told Australian media last year that he had a panic attack before one game in 2016, and had sought help in the past for anxiety issues around his high-pressure job.
"I have written to the RLIF asking for particulars about his mental health," said Tupou.
"I'm aware, but have not yet received any evidence or medical records, about his anxiety, which he has had for many years.
"It is an issue that I take with respect to him and I have asked for the RLIF for confirmation that they have known about it, let alone have they seen any medical [records], whether he is approved or fit to conduct his career as a referee.
"Further action can be taken. For example, if the issue of anxiety comes into it, and there is no medical certificate or examination of the referee, that is an issue. Why did they not do it? Has he got a certificate of fitness?"
Tupou's comments were slammed by the foundation.
"It's hard to see what one has to do with the other and it is quite a cheap shot to be making," said Graham.
"And it's a weak shot; it undermines the legitimacy of their entire complaint.
"There are so many people working really hard to break down the stigma and discrimination that can so often attend an experience of mental illness.
"There is also amazing work happening in the Pasifika community and this really undermines it. It can be one voice from one influential organisation or person that can really erode years of hard work.
"Nearly 50 per cent of us – and some studies say up to 80 per cent of us – will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime. And I don't think you could say that 80 per cent of us need to have a mental health certificate to do their jobs, or they have their judgement questioned?
"When these kinds of comments are made it creates a lot of fear. It can also cause people to feel quite ashamed of their experiences and it might discourage someone from disclosing and asking for help, or sharing their experiences.
"We all need support with whatever it is we are going through and if we can't be honest to get that support – whether it is for a mental health problem or something else – then it will be a much bigger struggle than it needs to be."
Cecchin is recognised as one of the best referees in the sport.
He has worked in the NRL since 2001 and has controlled more than 250 games, including two grand finals (in 2011 and 2016), a State of Origin series and numerous tests.
World Cup organisers offered "no comment" on Tupou's comments.
WHERE TO GET HELP
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
Or, if you need to talk to someone else, the following helplines are available:
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666