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Elite athlete back from the brink of depression (In My Mind: Paul Whatuira)

Elite athlete back from the brink of depression (In My Mind: Paul Whatuira)

He’s off for the prize! Bowen’s after him. Whatuira! I do worry about
the athletes of today — social media, people
expecting them to be heroes. But in reality,
they’re just young men. Overcoming losses, feeling that
you’ve let your teammates down,
your family down. When you’re injured or you have
financial worries, the stress
is overwhelming. I empathize with our young athletes,
going through my own mental health
battles. Going from the pinnacles of
rugby league to, a year later, being
locked up in psychiatric hospital. (INHALES SOFTLY) Captions by Glenna Casalme Captions were made with
the support of NZ On Air.
Copyright Able 2019 (DOWNBEAT ELECTRONIC MUSIC) Kia ora. My name is Paul Whatuira. I’m a father. I am a former
professional rugby league player and the director of my company,
Internal Strength. And what I’m most proud of
throughout my career, which covers the premierships
and 16 test matches for my beloved country
of Aotearoa, New Zealand, I was consistent and I turned up
to be there for my teammates. I was 17 years old when I played
my first game for the Warriors. There was no education. There was
nobody to support you and tell you
how you look after yourself, and that’s one of the main reasons
why I work in the education and
well-being space. It’s about going in there
and empowering and inspiring
these young men and understanding that
we are all not alone, and that with life, we’re all
gonna have our ups and downs
and tribulations. That’s life. (APPLAUSE) …tau mai ra ko te mauri,
ko te Mauri Tu, te Mauri Noho, ko te Mauri a Rangi, ko te Mauri
a Papa, ko te mauri a Io. Tau mai ra ko te aroha, ko tenei
te aroha o nga tipuna, Uhi Wero,
Te Mai, Te Mauri. Haumi e, hui e, taiki e. Mental health is a big issue in
Aotearoa New Zealand, particularly
in young men like yourselves, so it’s important that you speak up. I don’t have a degree in psychology,
but I do have a degree in pain, and I’m gonna share
with you my journey — of a man at the peak of his game,
to come tumbling down, to end up
in a psychiatric hospital, to eventually finding
his feet again. (ELECTRONIC MUSIC) My story’s pretty much the typical
upbringing, especially the lower end
of social demographic surroundings. The hardships of being raised
with two factory-working parents, the alcohol, the drugs, the weekend benders, the violence. It was a battle, but that’s all
my mum and dad knew at that time. The great thing is
we can all change. My mum and dad, they are not
the people they were during those
difficult times. Kia ora, whanau.
Oh-ho-ho! Good to see you, Dad.
Kia ora!
Kia ora. Good to see ya.
Yeah. Good to see ya, my boy. Yeah.
Kia ora, Mum. Good to see you.
How was your trip? Really good, thank you.
Good to be home.
Yeah. Always good to be home. Hey! Levi. Just talking about you.
Uncle Paul’s here. Kia ora, nephew. Long time no see.
He’s still that shy. Good to see you, my man. Long time.
Give him a big hug. Good boy. All right? How’s school?
Good. Keeping out of trouble?
Yes. You better be!
(CHORTLES) Kissed a girl yet?
Nah. What have you been
up to lately, anyway?
I’m enjoying being back home. Well, been a while.
Being back. It’s been a while.
What’s that, 18 years?
Back in New Zealand. 19 years?
Mm. His nickname was Fatty. He was a fatty child. He was a
stubborn, stubborn little bugger. He had an attitude. But he got into boxing, and that
sort of— he’d sort of come right. Anything he played, Paul
would put 100% in there. That’s what he was like. We used
to go and watch his league game. When we were up in Hopuhopu,
in Hamilto— uh, Waikato,…
Waikato. …Ngaruawahia, and they had lost
this game, and he really broke down,
you know, from that game, because, like I said, he gave
his 100%. But to the other boys,
it was just like, I suppose— A game.
…a game. I was that typical Maori boy
in the back class, daydreaming about playing
at the highest level. The opportunities
of education were there, but I was just solely focused on
becoming a professional athlete. (PENSIVE MUSIC) This is pretty much
my childhood backyard. Boxing, rugby, league,
touch football. But when I come back,
I’m always the same Paul. It keeps me humble;
it keeps me grounded. And looking back at it now,
it seems so silly. When I was 19 years old, one of
the pressures that I put on myself, that I created in my own mind —
that I was unworthy. If I wasn’t playing first grade,
I could not go back to Wainuiomata. COMMENTATOR: Here’s Whatuira.
He’s off for the prize! Bowen’s after him. Whatuira! In 2002 was my first year
at the Panthers. At that time in my life, I was 20
years old. Just how hungry I was. Fitness sessions,
weights, speed sessions. I had to be in front
so that I could be noticed. I took my job serious,
and it was serious business. The attention that you get, I’m not
gonna lie to you, I liked it. But who doesn’t like the attention,
being told that you’re good,
or the pats on the back from fans? It was a lot of good times too,
a lot of fun, especially having nights out with your
teammates, celebrating. But when the chips are down,
when you are not performing,
the attention that you get… You still have to turn up and
perform to the best of your ability. You still have to show up
in front of the media. You go through obstacles. But for me, what started
the downward spiral was the responsibilities of being
a father, the pressure to provide
for my family. (DISTURBING MUSIC) I was in England,
finishing off my career, putting pressure on myself, not sleeping, drowning my sorrows, thinking about my past and recycling
the bad times in my childhood, consuming more alcohol. Seven days I was in my own mind. Seven days of self-harm, criticising myself,
punishing myself. I was looking for ways
to escape this life. (UNSETTLING MUSIC, EERIE WHISPERING) The voices were telling me
to cause harm to my partner. VOICES: You’re useless.
You’re going to fail. I was a raging lunatic. VOICES: You can’t be a father. That’s when I spent four weeks
in the psychiatric hospital,
heavily medicated. VOICES: Stop it. Don’t. * (DISTURBING MUSIC) I left the hospital.
I was living in numbness. The pressures that I felt
was the financial pressure. The only thing that I knew how
to do was play rugby league. Once I left that hospital,
I went straight back to training. So the plan was to get him
back to Wellington. But somewhere along the line, they
detoured. They went back to Aussie. He started to play again. But you
could see what he was going through.
His eyes — he was all drugged up. But he knew he wasn’t
ready for the game. I managed to play
a handful of games. But I couldn’t compete
at the highest level no more. I had to step away from the game. My mentality at the time
was emptiness. Lack of self-confidence,
lack of self-identity. My identity was rugby league.
How do I rediscover myself? When I hit rock bottom,
it was my last day of being
a professional athlete. I drove home to my
two-bedroom apartment. I’d had enough of this life. But what stopped me was seeing
the picture of my daughter. And I knew… that I couldn’t leave this legacy
of her father taking his own life. (POIGNANT MUSIC) I went straight back
to the hospital. And I’m so grateful and proud of
myself that I asked for help during
that dark stage. That is actually my proudest moment. (GENTLE MUSIC) So, the ocean, Tangaroa’s
sort of like my cleansing. Every day’s not a good day. But I make sure when I’m drained
or when I am feeling not so good, I go to the ocean. Today is very special. I’m catching
up with a former… opposing player who used to play for the Bulldogs,
played for the Kangaroos —
Reni Maitua. He’s just transitioned
into life after football. Hopefully he can give us some
insights into his troubles that
he went through. (PENSIVE MUSIC) There he is.
Long time no see, buddy. Fats!
There he is. My man.
How are you? Long time. Mate. Good to see you, my man.
Kia ora, bro. You well?
Just in time. I’m well, mate. Yourself?
Looking well. You too, mate. Just in time
to pick a surfboard. There we go. Let’s get
straight into it, eh?
Let’s do it. So this is your backyard, eh?
This is my backyard, mate.
My sanctuary. It can be a place of…
It can get a bit crazy down here, but this is where I was
born and bred, so… Nice.
…this is it for me. You’ve had an outstanding career.
You’ve played 230-plus games,
premiership winner in 2004. I know cos you beat us in
the semi-finals when I was
at the Panthers. You’ve had a lot of highs.
Yup. And as we both know,
there’s a lot of struggle. Can you share with us some of your
highs and lows during the game? Within three years, I’d won
a reserve-grade grand final,
a first-grade grand final, picked in City-Country, you know,
and then picked for Australia,
before I was 24. Yes. So everything was building —
popularity and being recognised
on the street. It’s so much success that your
values kinda go out the window,
and your morals. And you forget what got you
there in the first place. And eventually, it all caught up
with me. It all caught up with me. And, um, that slow decline starts
to get steeper and steeper. And, um, yeah, eventually I spent two years out
of the game for testing positive
to a banned substance. I didn’t seek any sort of help. I
just trained my backside off to get
back on to the rugby league field. And everything was
going great at first, but things slowly started to creep
back into my life that led me down
that wrong path. I think it was the pressure
of not being able to compete
as hard as I wanted to any more. You know, there were things
happening off the field that
I kept to myself. There’s financial struggle.
A lot of— There’s alcohol,
which I brought on myself, but that was just to smother
the fact that I wasn’t playing well. It was just this vicious circle
that I’ve put myself into that
I didn’t know how to deal with. And eventually, I got,
you know, really depressed, and I went down the path
of trying to take my own life. I could look back on it now. And it
was a tough road and an extremely
tough period to pull through. It is what it is, and I’m trying
to find my place in society again. In the last five months,
I’ve been enjoying cabinetmaking. And surfing?
Surfing. That’s my therapy now. I’m still learning every day. Learning every single day. And you’ll… The minute you think that you know
everything is just an ignorance that will send you down
the wrong path again. (SOLEMN MUSIC) (BIRDS CALL) I retired from rugby league in 2010. For the next five years of battles
within my inner thought process, my mind became toxic. I isolated myself. I believed that my family,
friends and former teammates
were out to hurt me. I locked myself in my apartment
for six months straight, too scared
to venture out. I have so much aroha for my ex-wife, cos she shoot by me
through those dark days. We both made the decision to step
away from marriage of five years. She deserves better. She needed to be loved back. I couldn’t love… her,
cos I didn’t even love myself. I had to rebuild myself
in my own unique way. I had to find
the answers from within. And with each day,
I became stronger. Each day I slowly built
my confidence up. I reconnected back to my culture. I started challenging my own
internal dialogue with my negative
thoughts that I had. And by challenging, I realised that,
‘Hey, it’s not true. ‘My teammates still love me. ‘The still see me as the same Fats.’ Re-educated myself in what made me
feel good, which was training. (BLOWS LAND RAPIDLY, LOUDLY) Learning to laugh again. Reading, self-development, finding another purpose, but most importantly,
knowing my why. And my why is my pounamu —
my daughter, Gabrielle. So how do you say hello
in te reo Maori? Kia ora.
Kia ora. And your maunga, your family
mountain, is called Whakapunake.
Can you say Whakapunake? CHUCKLES: Whakapunake.
Ka pai, kotiro. And your other beautiful maunga,
mountain, is Taupiri. Taupiri. Your iwi is Ngati Kahungunu. Can you pronounce Ngati Kahungunu?
No. (LAUGHS) Well, try. Ngati Kahungunu. Ka mau te wehi, taku kotiro.
Well done. (CAR DOOR OPENS) There he is. Paulie Fats. Mate! Good to see ya. How are you? Good.
You well? All good, mate.
Been a long time.
Yeah. Different hairstyles. (BOTH LAUGH) 2003.
2003. North Harbour Stadium. I remember walking out and seeing
your name up on the wall there, and just so proud. Your baby girl had a car accident?
She had a car accident. She put
her head into the windscreen. There I was learning more and more
about head injuries. I became involved in
wanting to know more. I went back to university
to study more and eventually got to the level of a PhD
and wrote the concussion policies
for New Zealand Rugby League, which has shown that at a premier
level, you’re taking about
60 impacts per player, per game. An average of about 22 G’s.
That’s 20 times your body weight
going through your head. Rotational forces of about 40,000
radiants per second, per second. Everything inside
is slushing around. And it’s not just a nice,
safe little room. There’s lots of pits and troughs
and everything else that is sitting
in there. So that’s all getting torn,
getting mangled. My last experience playing footy,
with concussion, was back in 2007. I was playing against
the North Queensland Cowboys,
and it was 10 minutes to go. Made a tackle. I knew
deep down I wasn’t well, but you don’t wanna let
your teammates down. And I walked into the change rooms,
was in the shower, but then I realised I didn’t
know where I was. And Benji was right next to me,
and he saw that I was going through
something, so he took me to the doctor’s.
He asked me, ‘Who did you play
against?’ ‘I dunno.’ ‘What night is it?’ ‘I dunno.’ And I just broke out crying.
I just had all this emotion. One of the things I’d ask you is,
being in England, how many games up there did you feel
like you feel like you heard a bell
ring, see stars, feel like your head’s in a fog, feel
like you’re absolutely exhausted at the end of a game
and have to go to sleep? But if you imagine that that
repetitive thing is like a bucket. You just turn the tap on
in the bucket. We don’t know
how big the bucket is. Eventually it’s gonna
fill up and fill over. And they’re only now finding that
there’s a very strong correlation between suicide attempts
and head injuries. # (PLAYERS EXCLAIM) Our young athletes, the pressures
they have put on themselves to
making it big time. Financially, to support a family
at a young age is a lot of pressure. That’s why we need to keep
investing in player welfare
and player management. (DOWNBEAT MUSIC) Shane Elford is the
Education and Well-being manager at the Penrith Panthers,
and he’s been a good friend. We have a long rugby league history. It’s gonna be awesome to connect
with Shane to see the development
in the well-being space. Here he is.
Long time no see, buddy. Shane. Good to see you.
How you going?
(BOTH TALK AT ONCE) You’re still looking big.
Eh? Please! Don’t be like that. What do we do this for?
What are we calling each other?
I dunno. Sit down.
Will do. How’s things, all right?
Very good, thank you. I see you’re
running the show here now. Ah, please. Please, please.
You wish. Dual premiership winner —
Yes, I am. ’03 Panthers, ’05 Tigers.
I am. But this is… Chased me around a couple of clubs,
came to Panthers. I went to Tigers,
you followed me to Tigers.
I did too! Yes. We went to comp overseas,
New England. That was an experience. Back in our heyday.
It was a long time ago. What have you found’s been the
biggest issues off the field with
our young athletes of today? Yeah, I think there’s a lot of
pressure they put on themselves about trying to make it in the rugby
league world. I mean, they’ve got
talent. They’ve all got talent. They kind of put their normal life
on hold to do the best they can in
rugby league. And as we know, they don’t know
when that journey’s gonna end. Whereas we speak to them about
the balance in life. You know — try to keep yourself busy, go and
work. Reality is you’re not gonna
make it as a rugby league player. And if you do, you’re probably
still gonna have to work
or get a qualification. What are you doing now to monitor
your players’ well-being? Our sports science team have
devised a little five-question
questionnaire, such as, ‘How well did you sleep?
How are you feeling? Your mood?
Are you stressed?’ Example might be,
‘I’m not sleeping well.’ That’s a conversation starter
for Kevin and myself to go round
and talk to the player. If we can identify that,
that’s an opportunity for that
player to let us know. If he says, ‘Nah, nah, everything’s
fine,’ then that’s telling me that,
‘OK, well, he’s not telling me.’ So I’ll go around to him later on,
after training, or post-training, and sort of see if I can
dig a little bit deeper. Obviously, every young player,
every male has setbacks, and we try
to make him resilient, realise it’s not the end
of the world and give him
some strategies around that. You know, an example might be
spend more time or reconnecting with
family, or it might be to travel; it might be to, you know, help out
a junior club or a young person, mentor somebody,
et cetera, like that. There is far more pressure on our
athletes today than back in my day. With social media, if you have
100,000 people following you,
that’s a lot of pressure. Injuries is another one too. When you’re injured,
you’re away from your teammates;
you’re training on your own. You have players in good form
taking your position. The stress
is overwhelming. Yeah.
Josh, good to see ya. How you doing? Yeah, good. How are you?
Very well, thank you. Just trying to keep
out of trouble, you know?
Yeah. Have a seat.
How are you? My man, Zac. Thank you
for your time. Appreciate it.
No worries. You are both going through
a difficult journey at the moment. You both have suffered
serious knee injuries. And we all have our down days. One of my mechanisms is sleep.
When I don’t get enough sleep, I struggle through my day.
It’s a bit more harder. (BOTH AGREE) Can you share with me some of the
triggers that you may have? Josh?
Yeah, I mean, so pretty much a trigger
happened last week. Like, round one, like,
the boys were keen for round one,
and I was thinking, ‘Oh. They all get to play at the
start. I can’t even play this year.’ And they all get to play
round one and wear the jersey. There’s nothing— There’s no
better feeling than just putting
on the jersey and then running out. But, yeah, so that’s when it was
tough. So I just, yeah, have to get
over that, like, talk to people. Do you have a lot of support
around you during this time?
Yeah. Yeah. Just, like the boys and stuff. having them, like, you’re
not left out or anything. You always feel like you’re
part of the team, still. When you’re upset about it and
they tell you, ‘Just don’t worry.’ Like, just get back into your footy
and just enjoy everything that’s
happening and take it as it goes. You’re both in the under-20s system.
You can’t play rugby league forever. Have you both got a bit of education
happening at the moment? Yeah. So I just finished
my diploma in Sports Management, and then I’ve just done a week-long
course in my Cert IV in WH and S,
so Work, Health and Safety. Oh good. Yeah, I just finished year 12. Even with injuries,
they encourage us to work,
get a job, study something. They don’t push play unless
you work or you study. There’s still a lot of bit of
negativity around social media, how athletes use it, how people,
in general, use it. And… We do a lot of education on that.
Yeah, heaps. Helps us along the way.
Cos we’re young. We sort of need
some guidance with what to do, so it helps big time.
Yeah, so important. Like, you’ve got to watch exactly
what you post, what you say, even, like, when you’re commenting
on stuff, cos it can be seen and
judged from anywhere. Like, as soon as you put it
on social media, it’s there. Like, anyone can see it.
So, yeah, you’re pretty much… You gotta be, like, pretty…
like, pretty good. Like, you gotta watch what you post.
Post only, like, good things. After spending time with Shane,
it is awesome to see the support that these young athletes
are getting today. Obviously, there still needs to be
things that need to be worked on, and that’s why it’s so important
that these players understand that these people that
have walked their shoes… When our players are feeling down
or they’re not feeling right, is that they speak up
and ask for help. How much do you think this weighs? 3g, yep. So if I held on to this water
for a minute, would it be heavy? Nah? Half an hour? A day? A week? A month? Now that’s just getting
heavy, isn’t it? And that’s exactly like small
stresses or problems that come
into our life on the daily. When we have a problem that comes
into our life, it’s important that
you let it down. Because if you hold on to that
problem for a day, 30 minutes,
a year, that shit gets really heavy. It’s important to find that
balance within your life. It could be becoming a family man,
could be being a good person, having
goals outside of league. If you focus on positivity, you’ll
recycle positivity, and you’ll head
in that direction. I wish you all the best
for 2019, gentlemen. Where to for now for Paul Whatuira? I practise living for today. I still dream big, and the vision
that I have is that I want to empower and inspire
as many people as possible.
I’m not here on my own. I have the support from my family,
my friends, rugby league. All you
have to do is ask for help. If you or someone you know
needs support, free-call or text 1737. Captions by Glenna Casalme Captions were made with
the support of NZ On Air.
Copyright Able 2019 New Zealand on Air supports mental
health awareness through Attitude. Employees, athletes, talented youth
and people who display incredible courage in the face
of their challenges. Nominations are now open.

7 thoughts on “Elite athlete back from the brink of depression (In My Mind: Paul Whatuira)”

  1. I may not understand what you Went through but truth is we all have experienced pain in one way or the other

  2. The Maori men are some of the most beautiful men on the planet. But most importantly, I am glad that Paul was able fight off depression. From personal experience, depression is a bitch, to say the least.

  3. This gives me a lot of hope ..I’m not a pro athlete but Ive suffered from depression for almost 7 years now … everyday is a struggle , the feeling of not being the best you can be and not worthy of anything ,but I won’t let it beat me !thank you for sharing this story 😊

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