Family & Education

The suicide prevention message from the rugby scrum

Locker room talk
Image caption A different kind of locker room talk with England rugby team veteran Danny Care

It's the ultimate in male bonding, a group of men head down in the rugby scrum, all pushing for the team.

Now a new mental fitness scheme, using lessons from the rough and tumble of the pitch, is helping boys open up and talk about their feelings.

Funded by men's health charity Movember the programme teaches boys about mental health in the familiar surroundings of their local rugby club changing rooms.

The aim is to stop unhappy adolescents becoming the suicide cases of tomorrow.

Suicide is the leading cause of death of men aged 15 to 49, and there is a growing awareness of the risks young men can face, if they do not learn to be open about their mental health.

The mental health programme, Ahead of the Game, uses trained ex-players from rugby union and league to work with teenage members in community rugby clubs.

They teach the young players how to spot when a friend may be suffering, and how they can support them.

'Open up'

Taking a man-to-man approach works to sidestep the cultural expectations that boys and men should "man up" rather than open up and risk seeming weak, the charity says.

The programme is being expanded over the next 18 months to 8,000 teenagers, athletes and coaches in 21 cities - mainly in northern England - as part of the Rugby League World Cup 2021.

It comes at a time when there is growing awareness of the serious risks young men face if they do not look after their mental well-being.

Rather than talking directly about depression and anxiety, the programme uses the language of elite sport to stress how mental fitness is as important as physical fitness.

'Rollercoaster'

England international and Harlequins scrum half Danny Care says life has thrown him many curve balls during his highly successful rugby union career.

Image caption Old Ruts U15s on the pitch with England veteran Danny Care and Ahead of the Game's Paul Wilson

"Rugby is the ultimate team game. It needs all 15 of you doing your very best all the time," he says.

"If one man is not doing his job properly - it lets everyone down.

"It's a rollercoaster ride and this can put a lot of pressure on boys playing at the community club level, right through to those playing for their country," he adds.

"I've had times when I've got injured before the World Cup and wasn't able to play.

"I snapped a bone in my toe and had to have surgery, and missed the 2011 World Cup.

"There was this big build-up to it for so long, and then it's taken away from you at the last minute. So you have to be resilient.

"Fortunately, four years later I got to have another chance."

'Heavy state'

The idea behind the programme, is that these boys learn to use the resilience they build up on the pitch, and the mental fitness training they get in the changing rooms, and apply it more widely in their lives.

Image caption England international Danny Care talks with the team about opening up

And those taking part at Old Ruts rugby club in Wimbledon certainly seem to be doing just that.

Daniel, 15, says: "Two years ago I was in quite a heavy state, as I'd been bullied for 10 years straight. I was having panic attacks.

"I have autism and dyslexia - and it's particularly hard for people like us us to say how we feel.

"This programme has shown me that there are people out there who can help, and that people are able to get through what hurts."

Image caption Daniel and Sasha have made a close bond

And it seems Daniel has learned to talk and lean on friends like Sasha, who has also experienced bullying

"Now, if someone insults me, then I get over it quicker.

"I just say to myself 'so be it'. It's really helped me to improve how I deal with things like that." he says.

What's normal?

And Sean, 15 says the programme has helped him develop deeper friendships.

"We talk to each other more, and when we're in a bad situation we learn to get things off our chests."

Parents, rugby club coaches and officials also take part, and are equipped with the skills and awareness to spot when someone is feeling down.

"It's about understanding what is normal teenage behaviour and when it might be something else," says Tracy Herd, who manages the charity's suicide prevention work.

For tips on how to "spot a bro who's feeling low", check the Movember website.

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