In September 2010 the rugby league world changed for ever with the death of Terry Newton, aged 31. It emerged that the former Great Britain hooker had taken his own life and for the first time in the sport’s history the welfare of players and the importance of their mental wellbeing had been brought into focus.
Where a player turns at the end of his career is often overlooked but Ian Knott knows more than most how the impact of an enforced retirement can lead to mental health problems. It is those experiences, plus the legacy of Newton’s death, that have helped create a movement that started in rugby league but has now spread across sport.
State of Mind was founded in 2011, initially targeted at promoting mental health awareness in rugby league. Within months of its foundation Knott and the charity had joined forces – with the former Warrington and Leigh forward determined to ensure the current generation of players do not have to experience what he went through. “I’d had enough,” he says. “I was ready to take my own life.”
Knott’s career ended suddenly in 2005, after a back injury that led to five operations and at one stage left him bed-ridden. Knott still has to use a morphine pump at times and walks with the assistance of a stick. “If I wasn’t drugged up – I was taking 40-odd tablets a day – I was screaming at my wife, who gave up her dream job to look after me.”
Knott continues: “I was sick of being a burden. I got a box of tablets, a pint of water and some morphine and went upstairs. I took the tablets, drunk the water, but forgot the morphine. As I went back downstairs to get it, I saw pictures of my family and thought: ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I managed to get myself to hospital before the hardest thing of all: sitting in front of my wife and explaining what I’d been going through with my mental health. Without my wife I don’t know where I’d be.”
Rugby league, Knott says, was a very different game when he was playing. “If you told a coach you were struggling mentally, they’d laugh at you.” Now he is at the forefront of the code’s mental health revolution with State of Mind. Knott gives four talks a month as an ambassador to those who may be in need and says there are professional players who have benefited.
“We’ve had messages from players saying they’d take their own lives if it wasn’t for the talks,” he says. “There are nine or 10 people I know of within the game that have said that.”
State of Mind was initially aimed at Super League clubs but quickly grew to cater for the whole game. Seven years on from its foundation Knott and the charity now deal with far more than just one sport. “We’ve spoken at Manchester United, other Premier League clubs and are even into places like schools and building sites,” he says. “Local communities need help just as much – places like Whitehaven, St Helens, Leigh … they’re high on the list for suicide rates and they’re all rugby league towns.”
On average, 84 men take their own lives every week in the UK but State of Mind continues to attempt to combat that harrowing statistic. The charity has Offload sessions across the north‑west on weekday nights, targeted at men in working‑class areas who might not otherwise have access to such facilities.
For the 42-year-old Knott there is the personal satisfaction of giving something back, as well as helping promote rugby league’s undoubted place at the forefront of mental health awareness in professional sport. “You look at what other sports are trying to do but they’re miles behind State of Mind and rugby league,” he says. “If I do these talks for 30 years and help to stop one person from committing suicide, I’ll be happy.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.