Former referee backs campaign to tackle mental health problems

A FORMER rugby league referee is spearheading a push to get people to tackle their mental health – by talking about it

Ian Smith was an official at the top of the 13-a-side game for 12 years but some of the abuse he and his colleagues were subjected to took its toll.

Ian Smith

Now he is on board working with the State of Mind and Offload RL organisations, showing people how to unload their stresses and strains in the right way.

It is not just sports people that he and others speak to – he has been in prisons and spoken to businesses, with a particular focus on the construction industry.

Smith, who is also president of Crompton and Royton Golf Club and says he plays off a handicap of six, said: “I started with State of Mind 20 months ago, time flies.

“It’s now getting busier and busier, it’s taken off.

“Mental issues are no longer as much of a taboo subject as they were and primarily, we’re an awareness-raising charity.

“We’re just sportsmen who for whatever reason have found leaving the game of rugby league a bit difficult and we needed a focus.

“At the moment, we’ll go anywhere to spread the message. We started off in Super League, then went to the Championship and League One, then the community game.

“But now we’re going to other places in other sports. The other week I was at Cornish Pirates rugby union club in Falmouth, Cornwall.

“However, I’ve also done sessions at Liverpool Prison and with the construction company Costain.”

The construction company angle may seem far removed from the heat of sporting battle but 52-year-old Smith believes there are striking similarities, especially with those who work away from home and live in digs.

After hailing from Lees, working in Mossley and now living in North Chadderton, he believes the ‘macho’ tag may become a millstone.

It is also not a stretch to get mental health out in the open.

He added: “You don’t need to be a sportsman to talk about mental fitness – keep active or talk to friends.

“It’s not rocket science. To improve your physical fitness, you go to the gym or eat healthily but we don’t really take as much time and effort to improve our mental fitness.

“And what we do is having an effect. To have 40 people come forward and say because we of us making them aware of ways to improve their mental fitness they have not taken their own lives, it’s mindblowing.

“We’re just normal men giving them the chance to open up and talk about their problems.”

Smith’s role with the State of Mind group is going to the next stage as he and a number of others, including Royton resident Paul Highton, are currently training to become recognised mental health professionals, qualified to spot any problems a worker may have.

It may seem a departure from being one of the top rugby league officials in the country, taking charge of the biggest matches involving the biggest teams, but a lot is more similar than you may think.

One thing that has come in since he hung up his whistle is social media and the ‘trolls’ that exist on platforms like Facebook and Twitter can test mental health as much as anyone.

Smith said: “Every company has to have a first aider but not every company has to have a mental health first aider. However, a big reason for absences from people is mental health not physical health.

“Companies should have mental health first aiders, people on hand who can give advice.

“Much of what we’re learning and what people can implement in the workplace is about signposting, recognising the signs and giving employees ways to look after their mental fitness.

Essentially, pointing people towards help.

“I was a full-time referee for just short of 300 matches and loved it, I was living the dream and couldn’t wait to go to work every day.

“Now I’m trying to raise awareness. Yes people love to abuse referees in rugby league but that is more at the shirt – but remember, inside that shirt is someone who breathes, who bleeds, who screams.

“Personal abuse is not acceptable in any way, shape or form. Having to have an escort out of a ground by security or police isn’t either and all that has an impact on mental health and well being.

“Because it’s not a physical injury people don’t see it and it’s happening with social media trolls.

“When Robert Hicks was appointed to the Super League Grand Final, I saw 300 Tweets – 90 per cent of them were from trolls.”

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