Rugby League

Canberra Raiders prop Jeff Lynch breaks silence on depression

Canberra Raiders prop Jeff Lynch describes depression as a blur.

Canberra Raiders prop Jeff Lynch.
Canberra Raiders prop Jeff Lynch. Photo: Graham Tidy

His promising NRL aspirations stalled for two years because of consecutive season-ending injuries. Lynch turned up at training last year to lift weights, privately carrying the burden of two broken relationships - the divorce of his parents and split from his girlfriend.

"I went through pretty bad depression, it took a fair while to get out of it," Lynch, 21, said.

"I really didn't like telling people about the depression, in fact this is probably the first time I've told someone I actually had depression.

"It's a rollercoaster, you have your good and bad days. The bad days are really bad ... you don't want to see anyone. You rock up to training and everyone is deadset a blur.

"I didn't feel up to talking and being around other people. I just felt like dealing with my own problems by myself. That's when I realised I needed to seek help."

Lynch wants it known his is a positive story. He details this period of personal despair and heartbreak, but only to send the message to those experiencing dark days that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

Canberra Raiders prop Jeff Lynch.
Canberra Raiders prop Jeff Lynch. Photo: Jay Cronan

"I'm on top of the world now, all that stuff was a few months ago," said Lynch, due to make his comeback from a 12-month knee rehabilitation in a trial match this weekend.

Just last month two emerging rugby league players in Queensland, Regan Grieve, 18, and Hayden Butler, 20, took their own lives in a tragic 24-hour period for the game. It followed the death of North Queensland Cowboys forward Alex Elisala, 20, in 2013.

Jeff Lynch with students at Campbell High School, Samuel Chapman, left, and Randell Raber.
Jeff Lynch with students at Campbell High School, Samuel Chapman, left, and Randell Raber. Photo: Graham Tidy

NRL chief David Smith has stated mental health awareness and support will become one of the league's priorities for its players. The NRL has already formed a committee, which met for the first time this month, to address how rugby league can better deal with issues of mental health, especially for young players who may fall short of their ambitions in the game.

The Canberra Raiders have been proactive on the issue.

Three years ago the club employed Sportslife iQ, a training outreach and counselling service, aimed at educating and supporting young athletes to achieve better life balance.

Developed by former AIS basketball coach Frank Arsego and former Canberra Cannons basketballer Glenn Baird, a trained psychologist, the program mentors players on managing communication, relationships, anger, self esteem, time and alcohol. There are specific workshops on mental health and suicide awareness and prevention, with ongoing counselling provided.

Having put their under-16s and under-18s players through the program for the past two years, the Raiders have extended it to their under-20s and NRL squads t. Additionally, players' partners and families are invited to take part in the mentoring, ensuring the wider support network is involved.

"After the two boys took their lives up in Queensland the other week, Glenn and I assisted a couple of the boys at the Raiders who had a strong relationship with those boys," Arsego said.

"The following week, we conducted a three-hour workshop with the under-20s squad around suicide awareness and prevention.

"We've been delivering that module to the 16s and 18s for the last two years, so there are young boys coming through the club within that culture. Hopefully they have a better understanding about how to deal with these pressures ... hopefully they develop their own resilience and life skills to deal with things before they get out of control."

There is no data about whether mental health issues are more prevalent in elite sport, but the NRL's young players fit the statistics.

in 2012, suicide was the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24, followed by road accidents. In 2012, 70 males aged 15-19 years and 144 males aged 20-24 years died by suicide.

One in four young people under the age of 25 will suffer from depression or anxiety.

"The telling difference is 31 per cent of young girls will get help, but only one in 10 guys will," says Martin Fisk, chief executive officer of Menslink, a community service supporting young men in the ACT region since 2002.

The Raiders and Super Rugby club the ACT Brumbies partnered with Menslink three years ago to launch the Silence Is Deadly campaign, where players visit schools and encourage teenage boys to speak up about their problems. It reaches up to 10,000 students a year.

"The peak period for suicide appears to be from the ages of 24-44," Fisk said. "What we're trying to do is build the skills within the younger population so when they get to the high risk time in their life - maybe when they lose their first job, their first serious relationship or a marriage breaks down, when financial pressures start to build - they know what to do.

"We've got a saying 'Everything is possible'. What I see too often, with football players in particular, they get fixated on only one thing's possible - 'I can only be a football player, take that away from me and I don't know who I am'.

"The stress they live under of the constant competition within the team, who's going to make the squad, are you on the bench, in a starting position, am I good enough? Every day of the week they live with that relentless pressure.

"I think the ones that struggle are the ones who think they can do it themselves."

Raiders welfare and education manager Dean Souter said the under-20s environment was particularly challenging, given players were reaching a defining point in their football careers while dealing with issues such as relocation and homesickness, work, study and relationships.

The Raiders had independent research conducted after going through the Sportslife iQ program, comparing results against another NRL club that had not undertaken it.

"It's about getting them to speak out when the pressure's building," Souter said. "Two or three years ago the boys wouldn't say anything because it's looked upon as a sign of weakness, whereas now it's really clear to me that the message is filtering through."

Before suffering depression, Lynch had been a regular speaker for Menslink's Silence is Deadly program.

He spoke to students about how he had needed a shoulder reconstruction in his first year in the Raiders NRL squad, then, in his second game back, he ruptured his knee, requiring another 12 months on the sideline.

He told the students his mantra: "Tough times don't last, but tough people do."

Privately, though, Lynch was hurting. His parents divorced and he felt a responsibility for his mother and siblings - 13-year-old twins and 17-year-old sister - living in Cowra.

Then he broke up with his own girlfriend and had to find a new home in Canberra.

"We'd been teaching kids for six months to talk about their problems and open up and not bottle it up, then when it finally happened to myself I thought I don't feel like talking about it," Lynch said.

"I felt so down, I felt disgusted in myself. Then when I realised I could talk to people I could trust, it made me feel really good. I grew to know I'd much rather that feeling than being down in the dumps."

"As much as I was helping them, I found it was really helping me get it off my chest. That was helpful instead of sitting at home and feeling sorry for myself.

"As we've seen in the rugby league community, there have been two deaths from suicide in the last month and maybe they could have been prevented, you never know. If you talk about problems and get them off your chest, the majority of the time you come out the other end."

Lynch found other outlets too. He sought counselling, but not medication. Upbeat around teammates, he also confided in teammate and new housemate Paul Vaughan.

Lynch also took on a casual job, working three days a week at Campbell High School as a teacher's aide for the special unit, including children with autism and Down syndrome.

"The last year and a half has easily been the toughest of my life," Lynch said. "I had a lot of dramas outside of football and struggled with them mentally. I saw that [working at the Campbell High School] as an opportunity to help me get back on track. I'm there to help them but they ended up helping me a lot more.

"It helped put life in perspective, it made me realise football isn't the be-all and end-all. We don't really have it as hard as we think we do. Just seeing their struggles every day and what they and their families have to go through every day, really put life in perspective for me and opened my eyes.

"I wasn't able to go to work on a Tuesday and this little fella, Gus, he wouldn't go to class all day because I didn't turn up. He kept asking where Jeff was. Little things like that I take away."

A graduate of the AIS rugby league program, Lynch comes off contract at the end of the year.

He's barely been able to play in the past two seasons because of injury, but can't wait to rip in.

His mum and siblings are relocating to Canberra soon to join him.

"It's been two years of long hard rehab, it's good to just be back training with the boys. It's been a long, lonely road," Lynch said.

"I'd love to push for a spot to make my [NRL] debut this year. I wouldn't say it's a make-or-break year. It's a big year ... but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself."