New Zealand Rugby chief Neil Sorensen opens up to deliver strong message on mental health

New Zealand Rugby

Campaign launched to tackle mental health in rugby.

As New Zealand Rugby gets proactive in tackling the thorny issue of mental health, one of its own leaders has put his hand up to share a personal story he hopes will inspire others to seek help when it's needed most.

At Friday's launch of the Headfirst campaign in Auckland, NZR's general manager of rugby Neil Sorensen surprised some by admitting he had been through his own battles in this area and that he regarded it as one of the most important issues the game faces.

Sorensen, who is essentially Steve Tew's No 2 at NZ Rugby, said he felt empowered to tell some of his story because he wanted others to follow his lead and seek the help needed.

NZ"s General Manager Rugby Neil Sorensen has shared his own challenges in the area of mental health.
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NZ"s General Manager Rugby Neil Sorensen has shared his own challenges in the area of mental health.

"I've had mental health challenges for a long time," Sorensen told Stuff. "There is a history of depression in our family and we know we've got that issue to deal with. And I had some major trauma when I was a young man that I hid away for 30-odd years till my son was born 21 years ago.

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"My whole life fell to bits really and I needed a hell of a lot of support from experts to talk about that. It was something I couldn't talk about at the time and still struggle to now. But I've had a lot of help over the years."

Sorensen said he tells people he works with and others in the rugby sphere that when they're struggling with something "it's actually OK to go and have a chat to someone, and sometimes it's better to talk to a stranger than it is to someone you love. You can say things to a stranger because you don't have to face them tomorrow morning making toast".

The Wellington-based administrator surprised many at NZR headquarters when he informed them, while they were dealing with the fallout from the Kaikoura earthquake, that he'd previously been at EAP (Employee Assistance Programmes) for a half-dozen sessions dealing with "some personal stuff", and that it was all right for them to seek help there if it was needed.

Sorensen said he felt proud about opening up to his "team-mates" at NZR in this fashion.

"They look at me and say he's a bit of a weirdo but he's doing all right, he's got a good job, he's got a lovely family and seems like a good person and is functioning OK. For me to normalise it like that I think is quite powerful.

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"I'm passionate about this stuff. What I've learned is I had to get to know who I was, and it's an incredible space to be in. I can look back and go there a lot of things I'm useless at, but also lots I'm really good at, and I actually love who I am and I'm proud of how I turned out."

Former Chiefs prop James McCougan, who suffered a dark depression that nearly led him to suicide when his playing days ended, has also lent his support to this campaign.

"I came back [into the game] in 2014 and I looked at all the young guys around footy teams now and thought I'd hate for them to go through what I went through without having any advice or support or direction," he said.

McCougan said he fell into a bad place after his rugby career ended and suddenly he was removed from a supporting and all-encompassing environment he'd become so used to.

"I suppose I fell into depression. I'd tell everyone rugby doesn't define me, but I was trying to convince myself. You lose your support network and social circle and you lose a lot more than just walking away from football.

"I almost came to my demise. It was to the point I'd planned where, when and how. To think back on that is scary ─ thoughts I'd never entertained before and hope I never do again. But for someone who thought they were mentally stable, and was used to pressure, to be hit with stuff that was so foreign to me was really tough."

Eventually McCougan's sister helped him "find the light" and he has vowed to assist as many rugby people as he can in similar circumstances via this campaign, which has its online presence at www.headfirst.co.nz.

NZR Education Manager Dr Nathan Price said the campaign was about growing self-awareness and removing the barriers that exist in Kiwi society for those who might need help.

The work has already been started by Sir John Kirwan's public campaign around depression and Price said NZR hoped to take it to the next level. "This is us saying we could actually make a cool change here by doing the right thing and trying to make a meaningful shift in the community." 

 - Stuff

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