Why are so many rugby league players committing suicide?

Chris Garry

Rugby League suicide is so common it has a Wikipedia page and finally the NRL’s asking a controversial question – are league players more likely to take their own life?

Seven News can reveal the NRL has committed funding to a three-year research program into the connection between youth suicide and rugby league.

The findings will change the code and Australian sport forever but parents of lost loved ones aren’t sure it’s enough.

The James Cook University study will interview dozens of parents, siblings, coaches and players who have suffered loss, analyse the impact of concussion on mental health in teenagers and study NRL clubs and how they address depression.

Francis Winterstein (r), pictured with his brother, Cowboys player Antonio, committed suicide in 2015. Pic: Brooke Winterstein

"These young men who play league are obviously much more novelty seekers, sensation seekers than many others,” Professor Zoltan Sarnyai said.

“It might be there are factors that make them very talented, very suited to playing this sport but also vulnerable.”

The research will focus on North Queensland, where in the space of 12 months 14 rugby league players took their own life.

In one Townsville high school, six teens killed themselves in 12 months and the majority were connected to rugby league.

This program is an initiative of the Bishop Michael Putney Fellowship and aims “to help eliminate suicide among rugby league players from school age”.

Since Wests Tigers prodigy Mosese Fotuaika, 20, was lost to depression during pre-season training in 2013, the NRL has repeatedly warned against linking the code to increased rates of depression.

Young Tigers star Mosese Fotuaika died in 2013. Pic: Getty

Since then, Alex Elisala (20), Regan Grieve (18), Francis Winterstein (19) and Hayden Butler (20) are NRL contract holders who lost their battle with depression.

Clearly, the NRL have changed their perspective.

Professors Sarnyai and Brett McDermott are conducting the research and it’s a world first.

The only comparable research is an American study into suicide among college athletes.

“They found an increased incidence of suicide among football players compared to other collegiate sports,” Prof Sarnyai said.

The Winterstein family, including Cowboys winger Antonio and his wife Brooke, will be part of the research.

They lost Antonio’s brother Francis in 2015.

Francis Winterstein, pictured with his daughter, took his own life in 2015. Pic: Brooke Winterstein

"There's still a lot more that can be done I feel, even if it's just the mentality of how men or young boys are with one another,” Brooke said.

"It's definitely happening and it shouldn't be so whether it is just triggered among the rugby league community it shouldn't be.

*WATCH the video above for all the full interviews.*

"It’s about making sure no one else has to go through what we went through, that's the main goal"

Eleni Millios-Hullick from the Bishop Michael Putney Fellowship has taken Cowboys players into her home for more than a decade and has witnessed first-hand how expectation wears young men down.

"The stats are pretty packed against you for league as a career choice,” she said.

"Unfortunately when young men look at football as a career that is the only way they identify themselves.”

Angela Grieve lost her son four days before he turned 19.

An NRL superstar in the making, Regan Grieve captained the Queensland under-18 team but took his own life on Australia Day, 2015.

It was the second time he had attempted suicide.

“It is definitely not about the blame game, about pinning this on anyone… rugby league's an amazing sport,” Grieve said.

"I think there needs to be better support for the boys. Welfare's such an important role for the club and should be totally separate from their rugby league.”

The NRL’s put $30,000 into the research and are considering investing more.

An NRL spokesperson pointed out they’ve invested in mental health understanding in several ways.

“The State of Mind program has been running in Queensland since 2016,” an NRL spokesperson said.

“This is a six-step recognition program that is funded by Queensland Health, with just under $1 million over 3 years to work with 220 clubs.”

Angela, like Brooke and Eleni, don’t want to bring down rugby league but want this research to provide answers on how to help the next NRL prodigy drowning under pressure.

A text message from Angela’s son still haunts her.

"When Darius Boyd first came out and shared his mental health issues, Regan sent me a link to the story,” she said.

"I messaged him back and said wow what an amazing brave thing to do Regan and I asked does this hit home for you in anyway and he didn't reply.”

If you are concerned about the mental health of yourself or a loved one, seek support and information by calling Lifeline 13 11 14, Mensline 1300 789 978, or Kids Helpine 1800 551 800.