Rugby’s Hidden Cases of Depression

State of Mind’s Lindsay Woodford met up with Duncan Bell to talk about how the rugby world reacted to his secret battle against depression.


It’s been four years since former Bath prop Duncan Bell retired from professional rugby and four years since he was able to first talk about his secret battle against depression.

He had wondered how his courageous decision to open up would be interpreted in the ultra-masculine world of professional rugby union.

“I actually wanted to retire,” he said. “I’d had enough of rugby at that point. I was 37 and had played 18 years of top-flight rugby. My body was gone.”

“I didn’t have a great time mentally when I was a player – especially towards the end of my career – but when I retired it was horrendous, absolutely horrendous.”

He had secured a position as a financial advisor for life after the game but, just a week before his rugby contract ended, the job offer was withdrawn due to the economic crisis.

“That was a very daunting experience,” he added. “Especially as in the last couple of years of my career ending I got divorced and I walked away with nothing. So I walked away at the end of my rugby career with very little money, it was very much like starting again completely, not only emotionally but financially as well.”

“I was lucky that I was with my partner who could pay for me, because if it wasn’t for her I would literally have got to the end of my contract and I would have been homeless. Literally homeless. I wouldn’t have had a pot to p*** in. It was a horrible and frightening experience.”

“I wanted to be a mortgage advisor but how could I get a job being a mortgage advisor? I’d gone from school to university to rugby and I’d always had an agent who had sorted out my contract every two or three years. All of sudden I was in the big wide world.”

“I actually ended up coaching, which was something that I never wanted to do as a player, but when I lost my job before it even started I was like ‘S*** what do I do?’”

“So I did the one thing I knew I was good at, I coached rugby. Luckily I found a job and got enough money that I could live off.

“I couldn’t find a job as a mortgage advisor. I didn’t know where to look, so I decided to do it on my own. I was going to work for myself. Going from an environment of 35-40 rugby players on a daily basis six days a week to being virtually destitute and having me, myself and I as a work colleague was horrendous.”

While some of Britain’s best-loved sportsmen like Ricky Hatton and Andrew Flintoff had spoken of their struggles with depression, nobody in professional rugby union had documented the condition so starkly.

“I was just going to do a bog standard “Belly’s’ going to retire, pat on the back he’s played a load of games, cheers I’m off sort of thing.”

But his wife Katie and his best friend at the club, David Flatman, encouraged him to talk about his experiences in the hope that he would end his career by helping other people.

“Other sportsmen had done it, but as far as I was aware no one had really spoken about it in rugby so I thought to myself well why shouldn’t I?”

“I spoke to my agent and said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do.’ And then she spoke to a couple of reporters. It was turned down by other journalists and newspapers, which surprised me. I know I am not famous or anything, it’s not like Jonny Wilkinson doing it… or David Beckham.”

“There was just one chap who said he would do it.”

Despite several years of counselling, courses of anti-depressants and being an ambassador for the mental health Charity State of Mind, the subject still remains a painful one to discuss.

“I didn’t want to talk about it initially,” he went on. “I find it really uncomfortable. I will talk about it, but I find it uncomfortable. It’s hard. You’re out of your comfort zone and no one wants to be out of their comfort zone. It’s not nice.”

“Even to this day it’s like nails down a blackboard, I think about it sometimes and I can’t handle it. It really makes me cringe. I can’t stand people knowing, which is weird. All I can think of is, ‘What are they really thinking in their head?’ ‘Do they think I’m an attention seeker?’”

“That grates on me and I think that’s why I don’t like talking about it, because all I can think about is ‘Are they going to think I’m attention seeking?’”

“I’m quite happy being a sheep, being the grey man who doesn’t stand out and to do that article was a big thing for me. People were looking at me and I hate people looking at me unless I’m drunk and I turn into an absolute idiot.”

“I feel really proud for doing it but at the same time its difficult”

While emptying the emotional tank was cathartic, he was racked with anxiety about how his revelations would be received in the dressing room by his Bath teammates.

“I knew I had to tell them in my own way,” he explained. “I knew that it was coming out and I kept putting it off and putting it off. Then the day it came out I literally couldn’t put it off anymore.”

“I had to tell the boys because what I didn’t want to happen was for me to walk in and them to be like, ‘Belly, what the f*** is this all about?’”

“I finally had a meeting with Ian McGeechan and Martin Haag and I took them into a room with Nick Blofeld the chief exec at the time and said, ‘Look, I am sorry to do this but I’ve come out with an article and I apologise if I have brought the club into any sort of disrepute, but it’s the way I feel and I have to tell the boys because otherwise they are going to read it in the press.’

“They sort of took the piss and said, ‘F***** hell ‘Belly’, we aren’t going to reprimand you because you’ve done an article like this. Far from it.”

“So they went in when the boys weren’t in and they arranged the chairs in a big circle and I thought, ‘Oh f***, that’s exactly what I don’t want. I just want to tell the boys and b***** off. I don’t want to be like sitting in a circle of trust’.”

“So I walked in, and saw all the boys in a circle of trust and there’s a bloody camera at the back filming it, no one knows what’s going on and I walk in and I was fairly quiet when I was in rugby in the group and I didn’t really say much at team meetings I was never that sort of character. “

“At first all the boys start taking the p***, ‘Sit down, ‘Belly’. Shut up.’ Because I wasn’t really saying anything.”

“I realised after 10 to 15 minutes that I hadn’t explained what I wanted to because I couldn’t come out and say it. It was really weird but I couldn’t force myself to say what I was feeling and what I was struggling with.”

“They didn’t know why I was there and what I was talking about. I was going on about all these issues and problems and how much a part of my life they were and how they had helped me through some really bad times, but I hadn’t actually come out and said I’ve been suffering from anxiety and depression.

The 19-stone tight head prop had been suffering in silence for a decade.

“I was really quite emotional during it and afterwards and I remember Simon Taylor – who was a player at the time who was a very quiet lad, he was funny, a very dry sense of humour – he just came up to me at the end and everyone was sort of patting me on the back and things and saying, ‘Come on “Belly”, you’ll be alright.’ And he put his arm around me and gave me a massive hug and said, ‘I knew’. I don’t know what it was about that one thing he said but he made me feel a lot better for doing it.”

“I was shocked I thought I was going to have a lot of abuse, a lot of piss taking when the article came out. I was expecting abuse, things to be written on the internet, people just slagging me off. There was a little of that. I always remember one, there was this one picture and I’ve got my watch in the shot. When I was playing at Bath I was given a watch as a sort of thank you and it was a fairly expensive watch and it happened to be in the shot and someone had written on the website, ‘He’s obviously an ambassador of that watch company and he’s doing it to sell his story.’ I thought, ‘You b******. I’m not doing that at all’.”

“The support I got was not only from the rugby community, but I had letters written to the club from people who came across the article on the internet and said it was inspiring. That’s what made it absolutely worthwhile.”

“If it helped just one person I would be alright with that, but it was a lot more than that.”

During the end of season party, a player from another team confided in him.

“’Belly’, that’s the best thing you’ve ever done, and I just want to say that I have exactly the same problems and have had for a long time and I thought that I was the only one,” he said. “I thought, ‘F***** hell, mate.’ It broke my heart and I feel emotional thinking about it now. I know the guy and I would never have known. Not in a million years would I have known. “

He is troubled by rugby’s hidden cases of depression and despite his attempts to bring the issue to light, he contends that the problem remains significant and widespread.

“I’ve got a couple of really good mates who have retired and gone through exactly the same experience,” he maintained. “Even the other day I bumped into a guy who I played with at Bath and he said to me, ‘Mate, I saw you did your article and didn’t think anything of it and then when I retired I knew what you were talking about, there were days when I couldn’t get out of bed’.”

“I asked him why he didn’t call me and he said, ‘You can’t talk about those sorts of things can you?’ ‘But that’s what I did that f***** article for mate.’ He couldn’t pick up the phone to someone who had already come out and said he’d had it.”

“I don’t think I would have contemplated going to a coach or a doctor because I felt like a complete failure. Not only that but I felt that they wouldn’t want to help – and why would they – because I’m not their problem. I didn’t say anything to the club, the club doctor knew because he forced it out of me. My first concern, before anything, was ‘Please don’t tell the coaches because I didn’t want them knowing.’ I didn’t want anyone knowing because I didn’t want my place affected in the team.”

“A physio, if you had a hamstring injury would tell the coach, ‘Sorry, Duncan can’t play next week.’ But I could imagine the doc going to the coach and saying to the coach ‘Belly can’t play this week because he’s feeling a bit sad’. And I could imagine the coaches going ‘What?’”

Bell is hopeful that people’s attitude towards mental illness has changed.

“I think it is easier now for players to talk about things. It’s now an accepted problem within society, not just sport but society in general.”

“You’ve got a hamstring, you see a physio. You’ve got a mental health problem, you see a doctor. And to me there’s no difference. Absolutely no difference.”

He is passionate about educating younger players on mental health awareness and feels it should be an integral part of their rugby training.

“They should have workshops, not just on how to train, their diet and school, mental health issues should be part and parcel of those workshops.”

When asked what advice he would give to someone who might be suffering from depression he said, “I would always advocate talking to your closest, loved ones first and talking to them about the state of mind you’re in. The best thing I did was see the doctor and speak to a psychologist.”

Bell’s rugby legacy is so more than the battering’s he took in his 207 games for Bath and 5 for England, but in his role as an eloquent spokesman raising awareness of mental health issues in sport.