Two-times premiership winner Paul Whatuira paid a visit to his original NRL club to present an internal strength seminar to Vodafone Warriors players and staff based on his personal experience battling depression and mental illness.
The former Kiwi international, who won NRL titles with both Penrith (2003) and Wests Tigers (2005), shed light on the highs and lows of his rugby league career.
His raw story of a downward spiral into depression and psychotic episodes is one he wants everyone in the NRL to hear.
Whatuira said he was content with his life and his career, starting with five appearances as Vodafone Warriors #78 followed by stints with Melbourne, Penrith and Wests Tigers but the beginning of his downfall began when he moved to England to play for Huddersfield in the Super League in 2008.
When he found out he was going to be a father, memories of his upbringing being surrounded by alcohol, drugs and domestic violence flooded back and cost him his sporting career, marriage and almost his life.
‘It was becoming a father myself, and the responsibility of being a father that brought back those memories of the abuse and my surroundings… That's when the mental health issues started to really hit me,” said Whatuira.
He became increasingly depressed over time which led to a psychotic episode after seven days with no sleep, a time he refers to as his “seven days of hell” when voices in his head were telling him to kill his wife Venessa and their unborn child.
Escaping from hospital and being in jail overnight after assaulting two bystanders, he was then enrolled into a secure mental health rehabilitation centre.
The voices were still there and he said he attempted suicide but an image of his daughter stopped him. “I couldn’t leave that legacy for my daughter,” he said.
Emerging out of darkness, he says overcoming mental illness is a journey and encourages players to speak out to their family and friends, surrounding themselves in a loving environment.
He urged the players and staff at the Vodafone Warriors to search for gratitude.
“I appreciate the little things in life. I appreciate waking up being grateful. I find gratefulness throughout my day. I don't live by next year, or next month, I live for today”.
Whatuira now works for West Tigers as an education and wellbeing officer and hopes his story restores hope for those suffering in silence.
- If you or someone else you know is suffering from mental illness, please contact Lifeline New Zealand on 0800 543 354.