Duncan Bell forged a successful rugby career as a front row forward, doing Bath proud for nine years and gaining five caps for England. This year, as he approached retirement from the game, he made the bold decision to speak up for the first time to his team mates and the rugby community at large about the depression and anxiety that had tainted his life for over a decade.
As a rugby fan hailing from Bath- where children are generally taught rucking technique before they can walk- and more significantly, someone who has also struggled with these conditions for a similar period, reading about Bell's brave decision gave me inspiration. I wanted to speak with him to find out what it was like dealing with depression utterly by himself throughout his time as a player.
Slamming into rucks with his neck literally on the line over sixteen years as a pro never fazed the human battering ram; but standing up in front of thirty rugby players while being filmed to tell them about something so personal clearly did, in the process revealing a set of mammoth sized kahunas matching his behemoth physical proportions (that part wasn’t filmed).
It really is quite a story. Although I didn’t charge therapist rates, we also discussed what he has learned about himself in the process as well as the culture of rugby, its perception of mental health and how the likes of the Rugby Players’ Association are stepping up their commitment to building awareness within the game about such common problems like depression, anxiety and addiction. I came away feeling awed by his honesty and bravery. It actually helped me to feel I could be more open about it with my football team, which I plan to do. I'm not going anywhere near a bloody camera though.
Retiring from professional sport has long been recognised as a potential emotional- even existential- pitfall for athletes as the all-encompassing routine of training and match days disappears into thin air. It’s something the likes of boxer Ricky Hatton and footballer Dean Windass have recently spoken up about…
Going from playing rugby for a living to setting up your own business: it’s a bit of a culture shock isn’t it?
It is a culture shock, it’s a different environment, going from working with 25 blokes every day to doing it by myself, so it is very strange, but it’s OK at the moment so we’ll see how it goes.
Every professional rugby player will think about [retiring from the game] at some point in their career but a lot will almost bury their heads in the sand or put it off until the ‘next day’ but eventually it does happen, your body will eventually give up, there’s no two ways about it, and the more you can do to prepare yourself for the end of your rugby career the better. It’s tough because you’re playing a sport that you love and you think it’ll never end but unfortunately it will do. I was very fortunate that I bowed out on my own terms, but many people don’t; they end their career through injury so they get very little time to prepare themselves for the ‘afterlife’ I suppose.
As a rugby player from the academy days right up until this year you’ve been a rugby player. What’s it been like to almost lose that sense of identity?
Absolutely, yeah. You are long time retired, and I tell you what: you are very, very quickly forgotten about as well. If you’re not in the public eye all the time or playing regularly, you’re quickly forgotten.
So it’s a bit of a vacuum?
You just fall off the face of the earth really. Unless you’re involved in the media, people will soon forget who you are. But it happens for people in all walks in life, you’ve just got to take it on the chin and get on with it. You’ve just got to use as many contacts as you possibly can and do everything you can do to set yourself up for life after rugby.
On revealing his depression to his team-mates…
So it was around April this year that you were talking about ending your career and talking openly, for the first time really, to your team mates about the depression you’ve experienced. What was the reaction like?
Well, initially, I confided in my RPA (Rugby Players’ Association) rep. I’ve known him since school so it’s a relationship that goes back a long way. He said “would I be willing to get involved with the programme that helps professional rugby players with anxiety problems, depression and all sort of addictions” and I said obviously I would, I would love to. After I had done that I suddenly realised ‘Hang on, if I do this, then people are going to know about it’, so I almost backed myself into a corner really. It was either ‘pull out of the whole thing altogether’ or ‘come clean’. I did want to help in any way I could, so I was very much torn because I’m not one for the public eye or being centre of attention, I’m quite happy to blend into the background. If there’s a group there, I’ll blend into the background. I don’t really look for the attention- I’m not that sort of bloke- so I knew I would be very much out of my comfort zone, and anyone who knows me where I’m coming from and that I’d be out of my comfort zone, so it was a massive decision.
Sounds like an incredible difficult thing to do. Was it one of the hardest things you’ve ever done?
It was absolutely terrifying. I’d done the article with the Telegraph and I’d helped the RPA and I knew that I had to do it, otherwise it would just be awkward. So I got them in a room and I explained- well first I went to see Sir Ian McGeehan (director of rugby at the time), and he said ‘good on you for doing, the floor’s yours; talk to the boys, we’ll leave’- so I got the boys in a room and I told them. I did it in front of thirty-odd boys, which was very nerve-racking. You know, I’ve presented before, done presentations on scrum and lineout and all sorts of things but nothing like this…
Something so personal, it’s different isn’t it…
Yeah it was well out of my comfort zone. So anyway, I did it. At first it was lots of joking, you know, ‘What’s Bellie doing?’, ‘Sit down you mug’, that sort of thing, I’m up there just waiting to talk… there’s banter in rugby, always is, always will be, but as soon as I started talking they then realised ‘Oh crap, it’s something serious’. You could see a lot of heads hit the floor but you know… I don’t have a negative word to say, they were all really positive and all really helpful. I told the RPA “I’m going to tell the boys on this date. Do you want to film it and use it in your research, but also to help other players to prove that you can do it?” and they said “Yeah, absolutely”.
So I knew I was being filmed, it was all set up, so there was even more pressure on me. Doing it in front of thirty-odd blokes, but always in the corner of my mind I knew there was a bloody camera there! It was petrifying. They now use that footage to show to the rest of the Premiership and every team has been shown some of that footage, so I know that my ugly mug is being plastered around the Premiership clubs for the season…
I have had responses, emails… I have actually been stopped in the street by one professional player who said “Thank you for doing it, I’ve now contacted a programme”. I thought ‘Wow’. It sounds like a cliché but I did it to help, and because it really matters. It was a massive relief really. Saying it to the boys was just a huge release, it felt like I was in a big pressure cooker and couldn’t release anything, always living this lie… I remember, not long before I spoke to the boys I was dropped for a game last year, and I was angry and upset about it, like you are, and I was giving it a bit of whinge and Simon Taylor, the no. 8 said “Bloody hell, calm down, you sound like a bloody manic depressive” (laughs) and he actually came up to me after I spoke to the boys and said “I feel a bit insensitive now saying that” and I just said “Ah don’t worry about it mate, it’s just one of those things”.
On the nature of depression...
How long have you experienced depression for?
It’s something that I genuinely didn’t realise for a long time. It was only when the club doctor turned around and asked me if I was feeling alright- he picked up on things showing I had obviously gone downhill. I started to seek professional help and then, after numerous hours of seeing a therapist, you self-medicate I suppose, but you also get a period of self-reflection and I was able to look back over my life and think ‘Oh crap! Why didn’t I do this earlier?!’ (laughs).
You know, there’s a lot of picking up on things years and years ago, and I was only actually aware that I was suffering from anxiety and depression from around about four to five years, but when I look back retrospectively, it was a good ten years, maybe even more than that, going to back to mid to early twenties. And I think that was when it all started- maybe even earlier, I don’t know, it’s hard to think that long back. It’s ages ago but there’s been specific points in my career or my life when I probably was suffering but just didn’t realise, and it wasn’t until someone pretty much picked me up and forced me to go and seek help, that’s when I realised I needed help.
I read that a good few years ago you were thinking about going to see your GP about your low mood, but told yourself ‘Toughen up’. Do you think it was you telling yourself to toughen up, or the culture of the rugby world you’d been working in?
A combination of both I suppose. We all know how tough a sport rugby is and the type of personality it attracts and if you play the game, it’s a tough sport played by a lot of tough men, and I suppose when it comes to being physically tough, you become mentally tough as well, and I remember sitting in the car park and thinking ‘For Christ’s sake, this is ridiculous. What the hell am I doing here?’ I didn’t think it was a genuine illness. I thought it was a weakness, an excuse for failings, I suppose. That’s the way I looked at it, and sometimes I still feel like that, even though you can’t help it.
And that self-criticism is itself an inherent part of the illness… telling yourself ‘I’m weak’, beating yourself up…
Exactly, it’s a very self-deprecating illness, and it’s almost a lack of worthiness that you give to yourself. That’s how nasty it is; it’s almost a self-abusing illness, which is so frustrating because I think for a lot of things- if you get ill for whatever reason- if you get a cold like I’ve got know for instance, you know it’s an outside influence; I know it’s some sort of nasty little virus that’s got into me, and attacking my throat and all sorts. But with depression and anxiety it’s doesn’t feel like an outside influence, it feels like an internal illness; you’re creating your own problem. And you can’t get rid of it, because the more you try, the more it bites back and it’s very tough to get rid of it. The only way to do it is to self-medicate in a way, and it’s tough when you’re in a vicious circle.
Anyone who talks about it, talks about their experience, just explaining what it is. The more the barrier’s broken down the better it can be. ME, the illness, was only recognised as an illness a few years ago. It was only recently diagnosed. Well, it’s a little bit similar to depression and anxiety in a way because until a few years ago it was still considered as not being an illness. Even some people today, you know, think ‘it’s not an illness’ but it is. Maybe it’s not a physical illness but it is a mental illness. Although it does also manifest itself physically, like tiredness and insomnia. It’s a right bugger it is!
I remember you saying that you were always able, no matter how crap you felt at the time, to switch into ‘rugby player’ mode when playing, with the focus, the banter… Do you think it was a good distraction over all?
I suppose. I use to crave the games, because it was a whole day where I could immerse myself in competition. It’s different to John Kirwan. Having spoken personally to him and read his books, his depression and anxiety took place on the pitch as well as off it. That didn’t happen to me. It happened in training, but it never happened in the games. Ultimately, like all rugby players, I don’t play rugby to train, I do it to play. We players all love the game. I used to crave the games like you wouldn’t believe.
You could take out all your frustrations as well. That doesn’t mean punching and hitting people, it just means playing a game of rugby. It was a release. The only thing I would think about when playing rugby was rugby itself, so it was great in that regard.
On perception of mental health problems in rugby…
Have you noticed a change in the perception of mental health in rugby during your career?
Yeah, hugely so, and mainly because the programme the RPA have set up, the one I was involved in. Not only that, people- not many- but people have started talking openly about it. I think John Kirwan was the first one in the rugby circle. Johnny Wilkinson also talked about it in an autobiography. Also there was a young lad at Sale called Selorm Kuadey who recently took his own life and I think that probably- for the want of a better word- was the ‘icebreaker’. All of a sudden, it’s not just bluffing or something, it needs to be taken ultra-seriously, and the RPA are massively, massively proactive in this area, really tuned into it.
It always takes unfortunate incidents like this to- not to spur organisations into change, but to change individual’s perspective on things. Going back to Bath, when Alex Crockett, Alex Higgins and Michael Lipman left the club under the cocaine scandal and Matt Stevens was banned from rugby for two years for cocaine addiction as it turned out, people’s perspective on that has changed. Also systems and programmes that the RPA already had in place were suddenly being listened to. That then changed protocol and now every year every player has to attend a drugs awareness and addiction seminar; similar to this programme that has now been set up that I’m involved with; every year now every player has to sit through a seminar in relation to addiction, depression and anxiety. There are two education programmes that they have to sit through, and I’m very proud to be involved in it. If anything good has come out of a tragedy then this potentially is something.
Follow Fabio on Twitter at @Fabzucci