Wasps Academy’s Will Wilson reveals mental health journey

Date: 27 Feb 2020


Wasps Senior Academy back-row Will Wilson has revealed his compelling story about battling mental health issues. 

The 23-year-old admitted that almost a year ago to the day, he was suffering so badly with mental health, that he came close to ending his life. 

However, the back-row has been using the support that has been available to him at the Club to make significant improvements to help his life take a different course.

Wilson, a Wasps Under 18s graduate, studied History at Keble College, Oxford University between 2015 and 2018, where he played in three Varsity matches and made a handful of appearances for Wasps A. He also represented England 7s in Hong Kong in 2018.

He re-joined the Wasps Senior Academy ahead of the 2018/19 season but endured a torrid time with a recurrent shoulder injury which kept him out of action for two four-month periods. His full story is detailed below. 

But following the help and support of teammates, Wasps Club GP Ralph Mitchell and Wasps Psychologist Neil Addington, the brave athlete is managing to gradually overcome his demons. 

After making a short-term switch to South Africa in the summer of 2019, Wilson picked up some valuable game-time with Griquas, helping them win the SuperSport Rugby Challenge Cup title and featured for their Currie Cup side. 

He returned to Wasps later in the summer and was named captain of Wasps’ 7s side, impressing for the Black and Golds who reached the final of the competition for the sixth successive season in a row. 

He has continued his rugby development with regular game-time on loan at Championship outfit Cornish Pirates where he has made 10 appearances, scoring three tries – and he was called up to Wasps’ first-team to make his senior debut in January’s 52-24 European Challenge Cup win over Agen in France. 

Wilson’s focus is now on trying to balance his future as a rugby player with pursuing a legal career. He hopes his revelations about mental health will help save some lives and encourage others to come forward and talk. 

Former Wasps Psychologist Neil Addington, who now works with Celtic FC, explained: “Will first approached me over a year ago when he asked to have a chat and revealed he was suffering from depression. Through our conversation and recognising the boundaries of my competence as a sport psychologist, it was clear that further support would be beneficial to help Will with this clinical level of depression and suicidal thinking. 

“Through the services provided by the RPA, Will was able to, and encouraged, to access support through Cognacity - who provide the highest quality of care across their services with world-leading experts in mental health and performance services. However, the referral pathway isn’t straightforward, with the support not being immediate, so therefore I continued to work with Will, giving him an outlet to share what he was going through, rather than just leaving him to wait until he received this external support.

“Whilst Will received support from Cognacity, I maintained regular contact with both Will and the clinical psychologist he was seeing, with Will’s consent. This helped us as an Academy to provide a day-to-day environment that facilitated the support he was receiving with Cognacity alongside remaining aware and empathetic to what he was going through. During this time the Club GP was also involved with Will’s circumstances, particularly when he was prescribed anti-depressants.

“Will was incredibly courageous to share what he was going through with me. Building a trusting and empathetic relationship, he not only felt comfortable to disclose the details of what he was experiencing but recognised the importance of other relevant members of staff being in the know (including managers, coaches, physios and doctors). This allowed us to create an environment that supported him and his needs as effectively as possible. 

“Furthermore, it demonstrates the importance of having a clear referral pathway within clubs as well as triangulating information within this pathway to ensure players receive the best and most appropriate and effective support when suffering from mental ill-health. Rather than it being seen as something that is dealt with externally, the actual reality is that players may receive external support whilst still being in a club environment day-to-day. Therefore, it’s about us as staff having a level of awareness and understanding that allows us to provide as supportive an environment as possible that facilitates rather than undermines the external support players are receiving.”

Wasps Club GP Ralph Mitchell said: “At Wasps we are one of the few, if not the only, clubs that now incorporate mental health screening for our athletes as part of their pre-season physical screening. This is done using standardised screening tools which the players fill in anonymously and which come to me. On the basis of this information we can identify at-risk players and offer mental health interventions to help them.

“Similarly, if a player has suffered a long-term injury then mental health screening is done to ensure they aren’t slipping mentally as they begin their rehabilitation process. Players can see me away from the Club at my surgery in a neutral setting to discuss any issues they may be having and my phone is always on for help.

“I will still have overall responsibility for Will even though he’s on loan at Pirates and he will still be monitored and supported by myself and our psychology staff at Wasps. We’re really pleased with the progress that Will has made and his story is a great example of how we can get things right regarding mental health in professional sport. Mental health is a serious issue in everyday life and we’re really only touching the tip of the iceberg within professional sport. We have to do more to support players across Rugby Union – and across sport in general.”

Doctor Ralph Mitchell is working with Premiership Rugby currently, developing the initial work he has started on mental health screening for Wasps players. 

In recent times, former Wasps players in Kearnan Myall and Alex Rieder have revealed mental health issues they have endured while working in professional rugby, with both now coming out the other side.  

Kearnan, who is now studying a PhD in Psychiatry at Oxford University, is researching mindfulness and mental health issues among athletes and as part of this, he will be conducting some of his research working with the Wasps Academy to help the next generation. It is hoped that Kearnan’s work will assist players in coping with the stresses of the industry and prevent others from going through the same issues as he did during some of his career.

Meanwhile, Rieder, who recently retired from the game, has began life post-rugby by giving inspirational talks about how he battled demons during long-term injury periods. 

As the Club has gone on record to say before, Wasps recognise the importance of player wellbeing and it is something that is taken very seriously. Suicide and depression in particular are not routes that anyone should have to go down and in whatever way possible, we will support our players and staff, which we believe other rugby clubs and sports clubs must do to ensure individuals are not faced with these perilous situations.  

With the support of the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) and also club doctors and GPs, we would always encourage players or staff to utilise the support which is on offer on a regular basis, and will continue to remind them who they should contact if or when they feel that they require the support.

RPA members who may be struggling with their mental health can access the RPA’s 24/7 confidential counselling service by calling 01373 858 080, or for more information visit 
therpa.co.uk/lifttheweight

Will’s story 

More and more pieces about the impact of mental health within professional sport are reaching the public domain. I have read and listened to the words of several hugely courageous rugby players, the likes of whom I am grateful to call my friends, candidly and openly discussing their experiences and reassuring others they are not alone with their thoughts.

I personally did not consider myself ready to add to this discourse: my struggle with mental health has been comparatively short, without an obviously traumatic trigger, and I have isolated my problems from those close to me. Most of my friends and almost all of my colleagues do not know I have been taking anti-depressants for a year, or even that I am depressed. No one outside of my family and the psychologists available through Wasps and the RPA know the story detailed below of how far I spiralled. In one way or another, depression has cost me my love of rugby, intimacy with friends and family, a loving relationship, and happiness and contentment with my life. 

I don’t know if I could have solved all of my problems by talking more, but I do know that solidarity in these tough situations is vital to help others. I was reminded of this one lunchtime, when a friend opened up about his own struggles, and commented that he had no idea I felt the same way. That I was able to provide such a comfort to him, an outlet for his emotion and a realisation that he wasn’t the only black sheep of the herd, convinced me that while it may not feel right for me to talk, the possibility of helping preventing someone from finding themselves at their lowest was far more important in the grand scheme of things. I thought that if there was a chance, however slight, that I could help those I know (or don’t know), then there was only one logical option. So let me talk you through my struggles, starting, perhaps illogically, at the bottom.

Almost exactly a year ago, I made peace with myself that 17th February 2019 would be my last day alive. As I got into my car to drive home, I told myself I would never get out: I would die in my seat. Right up until the last moment, I believed I would deliberately crash my car, until I had a last-second change of heart. It was without relief or celebration; it was with sadness. I was sad that I was convinced I had no reason to live, and sad that I had felt so trapped in my own issues that I couldn’t trust anyone to help me.

There were several minor reasons that contributed to me reaching such a low point: injury, a lack of enjoyment at work, and environmental concerns all played their part. However, it has taken me a year to realise they remain insignificant beside the major cause, which I’ve tried to rationalise and detail below.

One of the main factors I have struggled with before and since my diagnosis with depression is feeling that I have no right to be depressed. I have a loving family and a fantastic circle of friends. I have a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and money in my bank account. When I decided I wanted to commit suicide, I was on the way to a black-tie ball. It made me angry and ashamed that a man with so much going right could find so little reason to live, and still to this day, when I find myself in the troughs of the rollercoaster ride that is depression, I seethe at myself that I cannot just be happy. Realising that it is not my choice to be unhappy, and that being depressed has nothing to do with what I possess materially or emotionally, has been one of the biggest struggles for me, and I know several of my friends also find it difficult to rationalise this.

I always prided myself on being self-aware and not wanting to project my problems onto others. At school and university I wanted to be seen as the mediator in my friendship group, someone who could be trusted not to let emotions get the better of me, and someone who could be a confidant to anyone who wanted help. While I loved the feeling that my friends knew if they needed me, they could find a confidential, trusting ear, I also found increasingly that the more serious my health became, the less I wanted to burden people who had shown me their vulnerabilities. When those closest to me demonstrated emotional insecurities and fears of isolation and abandonment, I didn’t want to tell them how I was considering actions that would realise those very fears for them. As a result, I found myself emotionally isolated, not unable to trust, but fearful that trusting people enough to talk would make their mental health worse. Choosing to carry this weight myself, therefore, appeared to me at the time to be a selfless act, but one with no form of escape or prospect of improvement. Consequently, the weight piled up until I reached breaking point.

The combination of not wishing to burden people whom I thought realising my state would harm, along with not understanding why I, of all people, could not find happiness in the world around me, led to an extremely toxic build-up of shame, anxiety and embarrassment. This was furthered by being unable to express myself on the field rugby-wise. I was aware before joining Wasps that I would not fit the stereotypical image of a rugby player, and I was prepared to encounter perhaps more difficulty than others in forming relationships and finding things in common with my new teammates. Injury then prevented me from enhancing relationships on the field, creating a catch-22 situation that meant I isolated myself from those who I had the most contact with. Trying to fit in more at work then caused behavioural changes picked up on and criticised by those close to me socially, all creating a situation where I felt I could not win. However, I was in a variety of situations that I felt required strength: my girlfriend was travelling, my brother struggling at university, and my friends jealous that I was supposedly living my dream. Sucking up and internalising these problems seemed to me to be the only way to cope to help myself save face and prevent bearing all to people who I felt increasingly less connected to.

It has taken me a long time to realise how harmful to me this approach was. Even writing this article has revealed more of my thought processes and reasoning behind my spiral and continued battle than I consciously thought would come out in my writing. My reaction to my mental health now is by no means a finished product, but I feel as though I have learned to manage my darkest thoughts in productive ways. That I have the confidence to write this, and assuredness that it is the right thing to do for me and for others, demonstrates to me how far I have come. I hope that others can see this and think more constructively about expressing themselves as soon as they can, rather than waiting for an apparently suitable opportunity. 

Events like World Mental Health Day/Week are crucial to raising awareness of mental health problems, and allowing people such as myself to realise that we are not alone in struggling with our daily lives. However, I also think dedicating a day or week to mental health is slightly disingenuous. Mental health is a constant struggle: it’s not something that people can just get on top of with some antibiotics and bed rest and feel better. I felt writing this that I might be missing out on finding some power in my message, with my decision to write not falling in any of the conventional ‘mental health awareness’ dates; however, struggles and depression don’t wait for such occasions to rear their heads. I’m not sure what the fallout from revealing this about myself will be, but I hope it will act as both a weight off my chest, and help others who, even now, might be thinking of giving up.

I hope that at least one person reading this can realise that when you wake up and can’t get out of bed due to anxiety sawing at your stomach, or halfway through a friend’s party you have to stand outside and meditate for ten minutes to stop yourself from crying, or the only thing you want to do is sit in your room with some Netflix and shut yourself off from the outside world, it doesn’t make you weak. Having a cold or cancer doesn’t make you weak; if anything, your response to it can demonstrate strength beyond what you thought you could demonstrate. All of those things and worse have happened to me in the past two weeks, yet I continue to try and convince myself that I can’t control these feelings. What I can control is my response.

So I would say to anyone else in a similar boat: control your response. Some things you can’t escape, but know there are support networks you can always use. Not using mine was a mistake that led me into a deep hole: once I did, my psychologist and doctors at Wasps were extremely supportive, helping me organise counselling sessions, prescription drugs, and simply being an outlet whenever I needed one. One of the things writing this will do for me, I hope, is open up still more people who will be able to support me. Even in the absence of professional networks, allowing friends, family or professionals to share your weight is critical not just to health, but to being happy and enjoying your life. Talk more, trust more. Problems like these are more common than you think, and we are always stronger together rather than fighting alone.