Laura was struggling with her mental health at university, until she joined a sports team and discovered the benefit of exercise and supportive teammates.
I had struggled with mental health problems for many years yet I was never able to talk about it openly with others. Having both anxiety and depression is feeling too much and nothing at all and both have had a big impact on my life since I was young. Moving away to university and becoming independent was one of the biggest challenges in my life but I considered myself mentally well enough to take it on. I had gone through some difficult times during my school years that totally destroyed my confidence and I desperately needed this change in life.
"Isolating myself from the world was nothing new to me."
At some point during my first year my mental health began to take over, so much so that I stopped going to lectures and spent the majority of my time alone in my room. Isolating myself from the world was nothing new to me but I had come to university for a change in my life, yet I found myself back in the dark place I had desperately wanted to free myself from. I barely made it through my first year and after much soul searching and pushing myself I made the decision to keep going. I returned for my second year with a new found determination to not let my mental health take over my life. It was this year that I joined my university's women’s rugby union team, and they would be the ones who helped change my whole university experience around eventually.
"I convinced myself nobody would like me and I wasn’t good enough."
It certainly wasn’t easy taking that first step and joining a new group of people in the hopes they would accept me. I had briefly joined in my first year for a few weeks but I convinced myself nobody would like me and I wasn’t good enough. I am eternally grateful to my past self for sticking it out the second time because it was the beginning of an amazing and life changing chapter.
In amongst this I was finally able to admit I needed some help. It wasn’t easy but I had reached breaking point and I could either keep sinking, or start swimming. I remember very clearly the first time I went to the doctors, taking with me a letter describing everything I had been feeling as my anxiety made it difficult to verbally put it all into words. A weight was immediately lifted and there began another journey of seeing my psychiatrist regularly, cognitive behavioural therapy and trying to find the right medication. My university was so supportive throughout, immediately putting a personal learning support plan in place to help me cope better and offering counselling sessions to help me understand everything I was feeling.
"Rugby was the one thing that always gave me some release from the whirlwind of my mind."
University was life changing for me but it was also a very difficult and testing period. Rugby was the one thing that always gave me some release from the whirlwind of my mind. I could feel so low yet I always knew that if I pushed myself to go to rugby training I would have a few hours of fun and genuine laughter. Who knew that rolling around in the mud in glorious British weather could make me feel so free? Being part of a team made me feel included for the first time in a long time and representing my university gave me a sense of pride. I felt accepted the way I was and being around people pushed me out of my comfort zone constantly which helped me grow as a person. For those 80 minutes I’m on that rugby pitch, I feel free.
Graduating and leaving university was hard but the hardest part was leaving my team and friends behind and beginning a new chapter in life. I knew I wanted to join my local team when I moved back home but my anxiety made it difficult to take the first step. I endlessly questioned whether I was good enough and whether I would fit in before taking the leap. I have been part of my team over a year now and they have really welcomed me into their family and made a difficult change in my life more bearable.
"I’m part of not only a team, but a family and I feel like I belong somewhere."
Rugby means so much to me and it really has changed my life for the better. It has consistently been a coping mechanism and escape from the sometimes unbearable emotional pain when I need it most. Having always struggled in social situations, it has given me a place where I felt significant and could connect with people. I’m part of not only a team, but a family and I feel like I belong somewhere. And ultimately it’s helped build my confidence in a way I could never have done without rugby in my life.
Women’s rugby really is for anybody regardless of background, age, sexuality, shape or size. You’d be hard pressed to find a more diverse variety of personalities than a women’s rugby team but rugby is what unites us all together. And for somebody who never felt like they quite fit in, it has taught me that it’s okay to just be myself. Rugby welcomes you regardless of who you are and that is what makes it so special. Your team becomes your second family and you will have friends for life. We play together, we drink together and we support one another, on and off the pitch.
"My mental health will always have an impact on my life but I know I can help myself get better each day by keeping that motivation and drive."
Rugby may not be everybody’s cup of tea nor has it been my miracle cure by any means. I want to share my experience of how a team sport like rugby has helped me through some of my personal battles with mental health and stay focused at often difficult times in my life. I hope that someone will read this and find that confidence to break out of that comfort zone and try something new. I spent too much of my life ashamed about my mental health and I suffered alone in silence. Rugby helped me to accept that this is who I am and be proud of myself. My mental health will always have an impact on my life but I know I can help myself get better each day by keeping that motivation and drive, and being part of the rugby family is helping me achieve just that.
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