By Dan Hunt on 14 September 2017
When I was a kid my dream was to play in the National Rugby League competition. I was a massive Newcastle Knights fan. I even had a photograph of the great Paul Harrigan on my bedside table. I fulfilled that dream of mine, playing 150 games for the St. George Illawarra Dragons.
I now have a new dream, and that starts with sharing my story of mental illness.
I grew up in Dapto, a small country town on the south coast of New South Wales. I was raised in an environment where domestic violence was present. My mum, two brothers, sister and I were all victims of physical and emotional abuse. Mental illness runs in my family. As a young kid, I found school extremely tough and really wanted to get out early. I would get into a lot of fights and push those closest to me away. I was a very angry young man.
With all the trouble going on at home, footy became my focus. Rugby League made me feel like I could achieve something. It gave me a sense of belonging and somewhere to fit in. It was a place where people had my back.
As soon as I finished high school I was selected to play for St. George, where I made my debut in 2007. It was a dream come true. I was so happy to be playing in the NRL. Every single day I was testing myself both physically and mentally against 30 blokes. At the same time, I was battling a mental illness. A lot of days I would wear that mask where I’d pretend everything was all good. I didn’t feel the need to talk about it as I thought it could be seen as a weakness and that people may treat me differently. I just sucked it up and went along with it.
The 2010 NRL season was a turning point in my life. I was playing the best footy of my career and was starting nearly every game. In the warm up against the Canberra Raiders, I ruptured my Achilles tendon. It snapped right up my leg which meant I was looking at 12-18 months of rehabilitation. That season I watched my teammates go on to win the grand final. Not playing in that game and not contributing to winning the grand final really hurt me.
My surgery, missing the Grand Final, and events from my childhood culminated into a deep depression and got into some risk-taking behaviour. I was on pain killers for a 6-8 month period where I abused them and became addicted. I was taking them to not just deal with the physical pain but also the emotional pain. It was my coping strategy as I had no education or understanding of mental health. I also lacked resilience. The pain killers were my escape from reality. I didn’t want to or know how to deal with it. It got to the point where I almost took my own life.
It wasn’t until my coach at St. George, Wayne Bennett, approached me and asked two simple questions – “Are you ok?” and “Is there anything I can do to help you?”. Shit, someone cared. Someone could see that I was struggling. It opened everything up for me. I had blinkers on and was only focused only on my struggle. I convinced myself that there was nothing going on. Having Wayne approach me opened my eyes and made me realise that yes, I was struggling and I did need some help.
Coincidentally, The Black Dog Institute came into training the next day and ran a mental health seminar. During the presentation, a few people shared their stories and it felt like each of them was speaking directly to me. That night I went home and did the online test they had left for us. It came back that I may be struggling mentally or might need some professional help. I spent two weeks trying to deny it – but it was always in the back of my head. I had to go and get help.
The car trip up to The Black Dog Institute in Randwick was bloody shit scary. I was shaking and my anxiety was through the roof. I knew I was going to deal with things that I’ve never dealt with before and didn’t know how I was going to go and what the outcome was going to be. I spent the day taking part in a variety of tests which involved speaking with psychologists and physiologists. At the end of the day, I was diagnosed with type 2 bipolar.
Most people would think it’s negative being diagnosed with a mental illness, for myself, it was a relief, a weight lifted off my shoulders. This explained everything that had occurred in my life – failed relationships, the impact of the grand final and many other experiences I had been through. It gave me the understanding that I can learn about and manage my mental illness.
During a 3-year period, I was on medication, mood stabilisers, and antipsychotics. I needed to level myself out so I could get in a head space which allowed me to make the right decisions for myself. I sat with my phycologist and learned about coping strategies and developing support networks. I went to TAFE and University to study mental health, community services, and social work. I wanted to learn more and more. I wanted to not just help myself, but to be able other people.
In 2011, I returned to playing in the NRL. I wanted to let people know about my illness, so I came out publicly with all the details, including the struggles I went through. I wanted everyone to know that it isn’t weak to ask for help or talk about your mental Illness. It takes a stronger person to ask for help than to sit there and suffer in silence.
At the Auckland 9’s in 2015 I was hit in a tackle from the side and as a result was told by surgeons that I’d never play again. My career was over at the age of 28, cutting my football career short. I was going to be taking painkillers. Would I become addicted again? I wondered whether I’d find myself in that dark space again. I didn’t. I drew upon the coping strategies and support networks that I’d put in place and got through.
Since my retirement, I have taken on ambassador roles with Beyond Blue, the Dragons, and the NRL to promote awareness and education around mental health. The NRL has provided me with so many positives and to be able to give back to the community is very rewarding.
We have come a long way since my diagnosis in 2010, though we are only still at the stage of awareness. We need to take that next step and push education. The need for more mental health awareness and education has motivated me to launch my own business – the Mental Health Movement, focusing on ‘community, industry, school and corporate’. I’m working on breaking down the barriers to mental health by sharing my story.
My journey has given me the tools and skills to now feel comfortable in holding tough conversations with my family. I’ve got a really good support network around me, including my brother, mum, and wife. My wife has been a massive support for me and I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for her. She has had to deal with my ups and downs. When you are struggling you just want to push everyone away. It is comforting to know they are there to help me when I need.
Not everyone is going to have Wayne Bennett ask them ‘Are you OK?’ However, everyone can be that Wayne Bennett and ask those questions.
Let’s start the conversation.