Ex-Catalans Dragons and Australia star Willie Tonga has opened up about a battle with depression, over a year after retiring with brief spells with Leigh Centurions and Bradford Bulls.
The 35-year-old retired in 2017, after a 15-year career, but admitted that in life after Rugby League he has struggled with mental health problems. Tonga is no stranger to the effects of depression, having saved former Parramatta Eels’ teammate Reni Maitua’s life in 2014.
Maitua had sent concerning text messages to family members, before Tonga rushed to his aid, only to find him already attempting suicide, before Tonga stopped the act. Now Tonga, after his own battle with depression, has urged more players to come out and speak about mental health issues.
“It has never gotten to the point where I’m thinking of suicide, but it does put me in dark places,” he told the South Burnett Times. “The thing is, I am only starting to become comfortable talking about it. Whereas before I would come home and sit in a dark room and it would just be myself and my thoughts.That is not a good place to be in.
“I thought I was invincible and rugby league was going to last forever. When you’re in your early 20s, life after football is the furthest thing from your mind. There are welfare officers who will help, but ultimately it is your decision whether you want to start a course or whether you just want to go home and play Xbox and sit in front of the TV. Sadly, I chose the second option.”
“I have been retired for a year now and I am still trying to find my feet. I was a couple of weeks into the new job and the lady that sits next to me, she came over and sat down and said ‘Will, are you ok?’
“I said ‘yeah’ and she said ‘are you sure?’, because she knew I wasn’t. I had only known this lady for a couple of weeks and she picked up on it straight away. I didn’t want to show people I was vulnerable and weak. I got angry at myself because I was allowing the signs to come out. I would then think I need to hide it more, I need to be even tougher.
“Reni and I were best mates and I knew he was going through some stuff but because I knew him so well I didn’t see any change in him,” added Tonga. “I think a lot of people who go through it (depression) are able to mask it so well and put on a brave face in front of the world but then you never know what they are going through behind close doors. The one person who has helped me be more comfortable speaking up about it is my good mate, Sonny Bill (Williams). He is encouraging me to bring it to light.”