NRL players are 'killing themselves', says Sydney Roosters star Mitchell Pearce
Just over a year ago, Mitchell Pearce was sitting in a rehab clinic in Thailand surrounded by heroin addicts and alcoholics.
Under the strict conditions of the rehab, the Australian could only use his phone for one hour each Saturday to call his family and closest friends.
After just three days, Pearce was dumbfounded. Surely, he told his loved ones in Australia, there had been some mistake. He was in the wrong place. He didn't belong here.
"For me, going to Thailand, the biggest thing was that I got back to the truth of who I was," Pearce said. "Away from people in footy, away from Sydney, it was the first time I had to mix with different people – heroin addicts, alcoholics – all these different people.
"When I first got there, I said, 'what am I doing here?' After a while I realised we are all the same."
Pearce doesn't make these comments in a one-on-one interview after training. Not in a press conference. Not in the Roosters dressing room after a stirring win.
He says it on a Thursday night on stage in a lecture theatre at the University of New South Wales. He is the guest of the Banksia Project, a non-for-profit Australian organisation that focuses on prevention and recovery in the area of mental health, with a particular focus on men.
Later, the 27-year-old halfback will take the stage with Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen, SC, and leading specialists in mental illness and he will speak with clarity and candour about his own experiences, dating back to the start of his career and then throughout the past year.
He doesn't squirm. He doesn't look like someone who'd rather be somewhere else. He just bares his soul in a way that few are prepared to do.
Around this time last year, Pearce was stuck in a living hell. He and some of his teammates had taken a boat out onto Sydney Harbour on Australia Day and when they returned to shore events took a turn for the worse.
Pearce continued partying and the next day video emerged of him simulating sex with a poodle cross. It became front-page news. He would ultimately be suspended for eight matches and fined A$125,000 (NZ$133,800).
With only select media present on Thursday night – Pearce had begrudgingly allowed some into the room because he didn't want to be seen as a publicity seeker – he openly talked about his transformation in the past year.
"I was in denial," he said. "I was running away for a long time. It's how I dealt with a lot of things in my life, as a young man. For the 48 hours after [the incident], I was quite angry. I was trying to work out why this happened, who took the video and that type of stuff.
"Which summed up where I was at the time. It wasn't until my family and a couple of close mates said, 'you can't keep running away', that things changed. I can't keep escaping, which is something I had done for most of my life."
Another turning point was his media conference in a park in Surry Hills a few days later. His close friend, Tristan Hay, had told him some hard truths beforehand. The next morning he was on his way to Thailand.
"I looked at a video of that press conference and it sunk in, it hit home," Pearce said. "Tristan shot it straight down the line and told me what was ahead. I looked about 47 at that time. It was pretty scary."
So much has changed in Pearce's life since then that it's tricky to Know where to start.
"Mindfulness has become a big part of my life," he said. "I meditate twice a day. I was never that into it when I was younger. I've got an erratic personality. I was someone who chased temptation. I had a rubber arm. Being young, playing footy, that was my downfall for a long time.
"Meditation helps me get back to self-awareness. And reading books. I never grew up spiritual, but I love reading books on Buddhism. It helps me calm myself. Footy players, we take a lot from people. Giving back to try to get out of yourself is also very powerful."
So, too, is mixing with the right crowd. Sitting in the room on Thursday night was his mum, Terri, and girlfriend Zoe Grant. Roosters director Mark Bouris was at the back of the room.
"That is also something that's changed: I have a loyal circle, it's a bit tighter," Pearce said. "For me, interaction with people that you trust is the best therapy for me. You learn that people are all going through similar stuff in a different way."
Having reported on much of Pearce's career – the professional and personal highs and lows – it's reassuring to hear him talk like this because he has a particularly important role to play in the game right now.
There's a disturbing trend of current and former players committing suicide. Players are constantly finding themselves deviating from the tracks. The Thai clinic that Pearce attended has had a long line of NRL players shuffling in throughout the past year.
Mental illness among rugby league players has become a serious issue. While the NRL and clubs are doing the best they can, when sage advice comes from a current player of Pearce's standing, it surely resonates louder.
"There's so many guys killing themselves in the NRL – it's a big problem," Pearce said. "Guys come in under a lot of pressure at at a young age. It's a problem for society but it's something in league we pass over a lot. We focus on it when it happens. The more someone who has gone through a bit of stuff talks, there is hope that it gets easier."
Did he ever find himself in a place that dark?
"I was never dramatic like that," he said. "The more people I meet, the more I realise people suffer from the same stuff. People need to get back to being true to themselves and stay away from temptation."
To that end, Pearce isn't completely abstaining from alcohol. He says he's picking and choosing his times and insists he's "staying on top of it".
"It's about discipline because the war never stops," he said. "There's always going to be temptations, there's always going to be another high to chase.
"For me it's about discipline about hanging around people and staying in yourself."
Where to get help
Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).
- Sydney Morning Herald