Focus on player welfare needs a vital balance

Mosese Fotuaika is not a household name in the world of rugby league. The NRL player with the Wests Tigers took his own life one year ago on Friday, hours after sustaining a season-ending injury during training.

Fotuaika's suicide reveals many of the underlying triggers of mental health issues facing young sportspeople and acted as a catalyst for me to start looking deeper into the issues surrounding mental health and its relation to professional sport.

The well-documented difficulties faced by Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Scott Miller and the tragedy of Charlotte Dawson's death, have also exposed the deep problem of mental illness that exists beneath our celebrity-obsessed society.

When I heard about Fotuaika's death, I was concerned and afraid it would not be the last time I would hear of a young footballer succumbing to the pressures of forging a career in professional sport where external displays of weakness and vulnerability are never part of the "game plan".

I never met Fotuaika, but spent the last season of my own playing career at the Wests Tigers in 2011. Coming from a family of professional sportsmen I can empathise with Fotuaika's situation. I am sure many other sportspeople can, too. Injuries, form slumps, personality clashes, politics and just plain bad luck are all part of the ups and downs of trying to make the big time in a professional sport such as rugby league.

I stopped playing in 2011 because these same reasons were also breaking me down. I didn't enjoy playing the game any more, and hadn't for a while. But I kept on pushing. I felt an inner need to keep going based on the expectations I had created for myself growing up surrounded by the football culture.

But, eventually, I realised I didn't need to play any more. It was that simple. I took the pressure off.

Today I am in a much better position. I have a career outside professional football, am finishing a second degree, am a volunteer with the Black Dog Institute and the Da La Salle Foundation and have taken up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But it took the support of family and friends to make the step to live in the real world outside professional sport.

The lure of fame, success and money draws thousands of young men to invest so much of their lives, their time, their emotions and focus on a game that our society loves so much. But this pursuit should not define us as individuals. Placing a person's value on their achievements on a sporting field is a recipe for disaster, disillusion and disappointment.

There are innumerable cases of ex-footballers, sports stars and celebrities who have descended into periods of depression, anxiety and substance abuse at the end of their careers, many of them with little of the experience, skills or further education needed to help them adjust back into a "normal" life.

Often our short-sighted sporting culture is not focused on putting the appropriate structures in place to help. Players then lose touch with the non-sporting skills and talents they can bring to society.

A friend of mine once said to me that football was not just about kicking and catching a piece of inflated leather. It is not just about good players, but about good people as well.

Community and professional sporting clubs should be committed to ensuring players are as successful off the field as they are on it. Sadly, in the pursuit of sporting success, achievements off the field far too often run second.

A recent player poll revealed one in five rugby league players had admitted to suffering from some form of depression throughout their career. This is higher than the national average, although from my experience, I would say one in five is heavily understated.

Putting time into each individual player from a young age so that they recognise exactly where their life and career is headed post-football would be a step in the right direction for not only rugby league, but all sporting codes.

Coupling this with increased education for players on identifying and preventing mental health issues from developing, would also have a substantial effect on reducing the likelihood of another tragic occurrence like the death of Mosese Fotuaika.

It is my hope that these events can act as the catalyst for a change to our sporting culture and an improved understanding of the mental health issues that underlie it. It is never too late to start talking.