One look at East Sussex man-mountain Joe Marler and you’ll appreciate why I chose the round ball game in my youth and did my utmost to avoid rugby.
The thought of facing up to this fearsome chunk of macho granite on a rugby pitch is enough to strike terror into the heart of anyone with any sense of self-preservation.
Six-foot tall and weighing in at more than 18 stone, the former Maynards Green Primary School and Heathfield Community College pupil is as instantly recognisable for his intimidating physique as for his trademark haircuts.
Mental health battles
But the Harlequin and England forward has revealed recently that there is much more to him than meets the eye. And on World Mental Health Day (10 October), his honesty about the mental health battles he has fought, offer hope for anyone, but especially men, who feel they always need to be strong.
In a previous interview with Your East Sussex Joe, whose home is still in Heathfield, explained that his career in rugby could so easily not have happened. He said: “I used to play a lot of football as a goalkeeper – I wasn’t any good but I used to fill the goal. Then a mate moved to Eastbourne and asked if I fancied playing rugby there on a Sunday morning – that’s how it all started.”
From the playing fields of Sussex to the big arenas of the world the 30-year-old has become a familiar and sometimes controversial figure in the rugby world. He was called into the England squad for the 2010 end of year tests and made his test debut as loose-head prop against South Africa in the summer of 2012. In April 2017, Marler was one of 41 players selected for the British and Irish Lions’ tour to New Zealand. He has played for England in World Cup tournaments on home turf in 2015, and then in Japan in 2019.
But in the past few weeks it has been for different reasons that he has hit the headlines. In the Daily Mail and in an interview with Piers Morgan on GMTV, the rugby hard man has opened-up about thoughts of ending it all, taking anti-depressants, and his mission to break mental health taboos.
Too scared to talk about it
In a revealing and astonishingly honest interview with the Daily Mail he said: “That’s part of the problem, isn’t it. Everyone thinks mental health is a sensitive subject, so they’re too scared to talk about it. It’s like it’s some kind of taboo.”
And in a sport where being alpha-male tough matters, Joe said the hard man image, complete with his mohawk haircuts, had been deliberate: “I didn’t want my struggles with mental health to provide the opposition with an advantage. So I tried to become this fake tough guy. The scary haircuts and everything else were just part of this persona.”
But this led to Joe living in two different worlds. This on-pitch fake Marler was not the person his friends and family knew and in his Mail interview he admitted it was all about image. “It wasn’t the real world.”
Joe explained that it was ‘Gypsygate’, when he targeted Wales prop Samson Lee with the insult in a Six Nations match in 2016, that really made things worse. “Everywhere I went, it was always, `You’re a racist’, `You’re a piece of sh*t’. My family would hear it. Suddenly those two worlds merged and I couldn’t get away from it. I had a meltdown. It was just engulfing me. Suddenly I’m thinking, `Am I actually a bad person?’”
And things got worse that year. He told the Mail: “I was driving to work every morning, putting the radio on and crying. I was having these thoughts: `You’re pathetic. What are you doing here? What’s the point of it all?’. Not just the point of rugby… the point of life. There were times when I thought, `What would it be like if I wasn’t here?’
Without a purpose
“More and more, I was finding myself without a purpose. I had a wife, my kids and I’d say to myself, `They don’t need me, their mum’s incredible, they’d be all right on their own’. Those thoughts filled me with shame and guilt. I was consuming myself with it.”
Joe finally admitted to himself that he needed help. “I’d tried a couple of sports psychologists before, but that wasn’t what I needed. It was just patching over the cracks. Seeing the clinical psychiatrist was a big moment for me. Delving deeper into underlying issues, exploring the mind and realising how you can get help with that.”
Asking for help
And that led to counselling, life coaches, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive Analytic Therapy. He came to realise they were not separate worlds. The more help he got, the more he got to grips with it and the better he felt.
Initially, Marler battled with himself about the stigma of medication. “I didn’t want anti-depressants,” he says. “I thought, `I don’t need f**king pills… I don’t want to rely on pills… that’s weak… I want to be able to sort it out for myself’”.
But the doctor got him to see things differently. That doctor said he should consider anti-depressants the same as anti-biotics. You take them to build up strength to help cure you. Anti-depressants are the same – working alongside CBT to help put the processes in place. “It suddenly made perfect sense. It didn’t feel like a weakness any more.” Joe explained.
On World Mental Health Day we all at Your East Sussex, applaud the big man’s openness and honesty, and we have shared excerpts of his revealing Mail interview to encourage everyone and anyone fighting mental health battles, to take the same steps as he did – ask for help and begin the healing process.
“Speaking about it doesn’t make you weak. It’s a positive step.” Joe concludes.
And I am certainly not going to argue with him!
For the full interview with the Daily Mail visit: Joe Marler talks about mental health
If you are struggling with your own mental heath, check out our article ‘How to stay on top of your health and wellbeing at home‘.