Kicking the stigma out of mental health


At the tender age of 26, Leinster out-half and serial worrier Jonathan Sexton occupies ‘the loneliest job in rugby’, which puts him in a good position to help young people pursue positive mental health projects. KATHY SHERIDANmeets him

IN HIS ACID-WASH jeans and neat jumper, he looks like any earnest, courteous, slightly wary young fellow you might bring home to your mother.

There is none of the bling or the blond highlights, no preening self-regard or false bonhomie, nothing to suggest that, week after week as a world-class out-half, he occupies the loneliest job in rugby. So much hope, hype, hostility and hard cash is invested in that slim young frame as he calmly walks up to take the crucial kick in a cauldron of maddened roars or profound silence. Then, in the same 80 minutes, he can make a blind pass so sublime that it dummies not just the hapless opposition but the entire Aviva stadium, as he did for Leinster against the Cardiff Blues last Saturday.

And he is still only 26. With a slew of Irish caps, a brace of Heineken Cups and perhaps a third beckoning in a few weeks’ time, it is easy to forget that.

Although spared rugby duty this week, he is at the 02 headquarters in Dublin, fulfilling his duty as the new official ambassador for Think Big, a programme designed by O2 and Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, to encourage young people to pursue positive mental-health projects. O2 is sinking €800,000 into Think Big this year, which includes the mentoring services of more than 100 volunteers from its own staff.

The projects include one designed to help remove the stigma surrounding depression in elite athletes, highlighting the fact that a “strong body” doesn’t always mean a strong mind. In recent years, rampantly macho sportsmen such as Alan Quinlan of Munster rugby have talked freely about their depression battles and the “stigma, almost a shame, attached to any attempt to break with the traditional, macho image”, as Quinlan put it.

Even at 26, Sexton is acutely aware of the dangers inherent in professional rugby. From the looming retirement that many face at 30 or 31, with no further career path, to the career-threatening injuries that can whisk a player from the everyday dressing-room with 30 lads, “slagging, having a laugh, doing a job you love and live by, to being at home by yourself, sitting on the couch all day looking after your injury. If you don’t have something to keep you occupied, you can see how people can get mental-health issues,” Sexton says. And that’s not counting the days when the body is up for it but nothing else is flowing right, the fans are looking crooked at you and the media loudmouths are gearing up into full, spittle-flecked, faux-outrage mode.

“It is quite easy to get down on yourself in professional sport, especially when things aren’t going well,” says Sexton. Like when you miss a crucial kick in front of 50,000 people? “That’s the hardest thing to do, to deal with the misses. I think you get better the older you get and the more experience you have of missing. At the start of my career, it probably affected my whole game. For the rest of that game, I’d be thinking of that one miss, that mistake, whereas now I try and just park it and try and do something positive quickly. So when you make a mistake, the thing you do is try and make it good, even something simple, though it’s easier said than done.”

He brings up the World Cup. “I had a bit of a tough time at the World Cup. I forgot how to kick the ball between the posts,” he says wryly. “But there are plenty of reasons for that. I haven’t gone into them, I won’t go into them, because I don’t want to make excuses, but they do get you down definitely. But it’s how you bounce back that is key, working hard, taking the positives and even the bad moments is key as well.”

THE MEDIA HAScertainly affected him, he admits, especially at the start of his career. “It probably had too big an effect. I was probably reading papers to see how I played rather than going to people who actually mattered like coaches and fellow players . . . And often the people criticising you don’t even know whether you’ve played well or not. There could be 10 reasons you might not have played well: people around you might not have played well, you could have been sick all week, for instance, and nobody knows except your team-mates and your coaches; you go out and play a great game for someone who has been sick all week but you might not be up to the standard that these media people expect and they can slate you but they haven’t seen the full picture. Or you could go out and be half-injured but you’re playing for the team because you know you can give something to the team that someone else might not, and then you’re criticised for not being 100 per cent.”

It’s not quite a cry from the heart – the tone is measured – but somewhere in there is a suggestion that there is a lot of bombast born of ignorance and insensitivity among the commentariat. These professional sportsmen are what Quinlan calls “perishable commodities”, burdened with the same physical and mental fragilities as everyone else.

The difference is that they lay their bodies on the line, day after day.

Sexton is no different. He gets nervous about big games and playing before big crowds. He has trouble sleeping the night before. “You’d almost get to sleep and wake up a couple of hours later, wide awake. And it’s a snowball then, worrying about lying awake.”

Above all, they worry about the life-altering injury that threatens every one of them. “A lot of us don’t have an answer to what we’d do . . . Career-wise, I don’t have a clue about what I’d do if I was told I had to retire tomorrow. And that’s what 90 per cent of rugby players worry about. We’re covered by insurance for a certain amount of years so I would have a period of time to get my real life sorted. Again, it’s something that if it gets landed on you suddenly, like it does a lot of players, that’s where the issue of their mental well-being and depression might come in.”

Tutored by Leinster performance coach, Enda McNulty, Sexton has learned to avoid all media on weeks of big games, although he is an avid reader at other times. “I can’t be filling my mind with other people’s opinion on how I’m playing.”

McNulty also teaches a simple technique to deal with tension. “When you do something bad or have a miss, your heart rate goes up automatically, so you try to get that back down straightaway and calm yourself. A deep breath is something that I try and do before a kick, just to relax myself. When you’re taking a deep breath, you don’t think about the bad things.”

While Sexton has the advantage of the protective Leinster structure, the same doesn’t apply to boys aspiring to the madly hyped schools’ cups, on whom massive expectations are piled by schools and parents and, to some extent, media.

“Yeah, it’s more for the parents these days,” he nods. “I’ve seen parents almost telling [a boy] ‘You’re going to be the next Brian O’Driscoll’ or whatever and the kid, he’s not even on the first team at school – he’s not great, to be honest, but he believes he’s going to be. They’re being built up to be something they’re not and it’s a big let-down for them.”

Sexton worked his way through the schools’ cup competitions, playing for St Mary’s in Rathmines, Dublin 6. He loved those campaigns and counts himself lucky that he had parents who encouraged him, including a father “who’d be screaming on the sideline, fighting with other parents” but who applied only one rule: “Don’t stop trying. It didn’t matter if we lost by 50 points, the thing was you did your best.”

There is a revealing story about his parents’ approach when he dropped out of an engineering-degree course after six months and got a full-time job with Friends First. “I was playing club rugby with St Mary’s, training twice a week, when I was asked to come in and train with the [Leinster] sub-academy as it was called. But my parents wouldn’t let me because I wouldn’t be getting paid. I was told ‘Go and earn your money and if you’re in college, you can train with the academy’.”

He then applied for a commerce place in UCD and “fluked” his way into the academy, as he puts it, when an Irish under-21s coach came to watch the other team’s out-half in action and asked about the dark-haired young lad playing out of his skin: “What age is he?”

For all that, he is astute enough to see the challenge for parents in setting that delicate balance between “letting their kids sit at home all day on the Playstation and encouraging them to get out and play . . . But it can go beyond that to the point where they’re almost pressurising them into playing.”

That balance in his character is evident in his immediate plans. There’s Ulster next week in the RaboDirect Pro12, then the Heineken Cup semi-final and, a couple of days after that, his final commerce exams.

That three-year commerce course he signed up for way back turned into a six-year, part-time course. Oh yes, he will panic, he says. “I’ve always been a worrier.” But even that is turned into a positive. It takes his mind off worrying about the rugby, he says. “And the panic is like an adrenalin shot for study. It gets me into gear.”