Former rugby league player Johnny Lawless is on a mission to improve mental health

Johnny Lawless.
Johnny Lawless.

He never shirked a challenge during his professional rugby league career and Johnny Lawless was on the front foot again as he urged people not to shy away from the subject of mental health.

Johnny made more than 200 appearances in Super League and was part of the Sheffield Eagles team that sensationally beat Wigan Warriors to win the Challenge Cup at Wembley in 1998.

Dan Keane.

Dan Keane.

These days the 44-year-old dad is a director at a mechanical services firm based in his home town of Halifax.

But he is also on a mission to combat – through the work of a training, education and awareness-raising initiative called Minds Matter – the stigma that sometimes still surrounds poor mental health.

Johnny said it was important for people to realise that even small changes can make a big difference to their wellbeing.

"We've all got mental health and you've got to respect it – and if you don't respect it, it can take you to places you don't want to be," he said.

"We're finding that a lot of people have very limited knowledge of what mental health actually is and the effects it can have.

"This is why we do these presentations, to give people some basic awareness and hopefully encourage them to explore it further themselves."

Johnny's journey towards the front line of mental health work began in tragic circumstances, with two of his friends from the rugby league community taking their own lives in the space of 18 months.

Siddal ARLFC forward Matthew Smith and former Leeds player Mick Shaw died in October 2010 and March 2012 respectively. They were both in their 30s.

Following their deaths, Johnny went for counselling with Sporting Chance, the charity set up by ex-Arsenal and England footballer Tony Adams.

He subsequently attended a two-day mental health first aid course before launching Minds Matter two years ago.

He and Mind Matters colleague Dan Keane now take their programme of presentations, conferences and consultations into a range of workplaces and sports clubs.

Their main message is that 'awareness is key', with audiences being encouraged to start conversations and focus on the present, rather than events in the past or concerns about what could happen in the future.

Johnny – who describes himself as a typical, plain-speaking Yorkshireman – tells people how the deaths of Matthew and Mick had opened his eyes to the crippling problems that many people choose to bottle up.

Dan, 26, also shared his story explaining how he struggled with his own mental health issues after injury brought a halt to his time as a player with Siddal ARLFC four years ago.

He has since realised that his involvement with the sport was a "coping strategy" established after the sudden death of his mother during his teenage years.

Other elements of the presentation included a true-or-false quiz and an animated film about depression called I Had a Black Dog.

Participants were also encouraged to write down both positive and negative words and phrases associated with mental health.

And there was information on the so-called 'Mindnificent 7' – a set of action points for people to work towards, including balance, learning and communication.

Asked what his advice would be for anyone finding it hard to cope with mental health issues, Johnny said: "The first thing they need to have is hope that it can be better, it can be different.

"One thing we know about mental health is that it moves around all the time. Just because you're in one place now, doesn't mean to say you can't be in the place where you want to be.

"But you need to change things to get there. Maybe approach someone and seek help, speak to a family member or friend, or if your workplace has got a mental health first aider then go and see them. Be brave and be open about it.

"I think Mental Health Awareness Week is a win-win for everybody, it gets us talking about mental health, you're introducing people to the subject when they might not have been aware of it before.

"We want to hear from companies, from sports clubs, from everyone – we're going to keep banging the drum and trying to start conversations."

For further information about Minds Matter, visit the website or email: