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KEITH SENIOR OPENS UP ON MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

Former Leeds Rhinos, England and Great Britain centre, Keith Senior, has revealed how having his career abruptly ended by a knee injury sent him into a spiral of drink and depression.

Following the launch of Rugby League World Cup 2021’s Mental Fitness Charter earlier this year, the interview, airing on World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September), is the second in the RLWC2021 x Movember mini-series, which aims to offer an insight into why positive wellbeing is important for everyone.

The charter details how RLWC2021 aims to educate every player, team official, match official, teammate and volunteer to look after their own mental fitness and of those around them, as well as delivering mental fitness workshops to 8,000 young Rugby League players and their parents.

Speaking with former Sky Sports presenter, Simon Thomas, Senior opened up about the issues that caused his struggles following his retirement.

“Everything that I had was sport, was rugby. If I was going through some issues, if I had a problem emotionally, I couldn't deal with it, so I'd run away from it and I'd go to rugby.

“So that was always my coping mechanism. I knew that if I was having a bit of a tough time at home, I could go into the changing room the next day and it'd be forgotten about. Dealing with it [retirement], you lose a massive sense of purpose, a sense of yourself.

“As a 20-year-old, I made my international debut on a tour to Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand, but I didn't see that. I was just blinkered by what was going forward.”

In a career that spanned 17 years, Senior won everything there was to win in the British game. Four Super League titles, a Challenge Cup win and over 200 tries later, his playing career came to an end in 2011 thanks to a knee injury that resulted in 12 operations in ten months.

“I went to see the specialist and he said, ‘I can't do anything for you. You're going to have to retire', and that was one of the defining moments when my world sort of fell apart, because I didn't see a future. I didn't know what I was going to do and I didn't know where I was going to go.

“I ended up splitting up with my partner and moving in with [former Leeds Rhinos player] Luke Ambler. I just remember one point when I got to rock bottom, sitting on his sofa, crying my eyes out and just thinking, ‘I've wasted my life. I can't see any future. I can't see where I'm going to go. I can't see what I'm going to do. You know, my life's just been a total waste.’”

With these thoughts came a tendency to reach for the bottle. And it all came to a head for Senior one New Year’s Eve.

“It [drinking] was occupying my mind, occupying my time and keeping me busy and giving me something to do,” admitted Senior.

“That ended up being my purpose. One moment, I just got that drunk - and it might've even been on New Year's Eve - I was absolutely paralytic and I went back to Luke Ambler's house and I put my head through his wall.

“Waking up and just seeing what you've created and letting people down and dealing with that, it's hard to deal with, it's hard to comprehend. Not only was I feeling a failure to myself, but I was also a failure to everybody else.”

That desire for a sense of purpose came with a job offer at Leeds Rhinos Foundation, the official charity of Leeds Rhinos. Since his retirement, Senior has devoted countless hours of his time to charity work, taking part in everything from marathons to 24-hour bike rides.

He’s also taken on the role of Community and Welfare Manager for Rugby League Cares, an independent charity who are responsible for delivering player welfare services to the professional game.

Senior is on the front line when it comes to addressing mental fitness in the sport, and he is full of praise for the way Rugby League deals with the issue.

“To be honest, I think we're at the forefront at the moment. The way the sport has gone with Rugby League Cares and the player welfare system, we're excelling in it.

“With the World Cup coming up and the Movember partnership, we're working on a peer mentoring group where it is just basically somebody to talk to, because it helps. Getting somebody else's perspective and being able to just let some emotion out and just let some feeling out and nobody judges - that's the thing.”

So what would Senior’s top piece of advice be for anyone who is struggling?

“Hobbies. Occupy yourself. I didn't have any hobbies as a rugby player. You've got to have a distraction from something else. I didn't have any distraction. I didn't have anything else to focus on.

“Sometimes it is a simple hobby, where you can just have that release from the issues. The problems are still going to be there, but you can look at them in a different light.” 

If you’ve been affected by anything you’ve read, there is more information on what guidance and help is available at movember.com.

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