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Long Read Interview: Jamie Acton

Rugby league and mental health are two things that are being spoken about a lot more in the same conversation.

And, for good reason; the likes of Stevie Ward have documented their trials and tribulations in relation to life without the sport with more stars opening up about the dangers of being isolated during and after their careers.

For one more former Leigh Centurions star, rugby league had always been his escape from a number of mental health problems.

But, for Jamie Acton, who played 95 games for Leigh between 2014 and 2018, those problems were sometimes made worse by actions on the field.

“I had a couple of years at Wigan and left to go to Workington and then I moved back down to Leigh and broke my neck two years ago,” Acton told Serious About Rugby League.

“It was a horrific time and it inspired me to go on a bit of a journey.

“I went through quite a severe depression and felt suicidal at times, but through my support network, my wife and friends, I was able to find my feet a bit.

“I’ve now created a good balance to potentially help other young men with a lack of purpose and identity.”

Acton believes that more needs to be done within the sport to provide a greater support network to those on the outside.

“You get taught how to pass a ball but you don’t get taught how to deal with the psychological impact of not being a player anymore, how to deal with the highs and lows and fans sending you death threats on Facebook.

“How fans love you one minute and then hate you the next minute, you either deal with it and crack on or fall to the wayside.

“My ambition and aim is to utilise my experiences as a rugby player and someone who’s gone through severe depression to help others talk about their problems and be a catalyst to open up their experiences.”

The 29-year-old former prop forward spoke honestly about the troubles he has faced from a young age.

“I really enjoyed playing Super League with Leigh – it was great fun, but since I was young I’ve suffered with anxiety and ADHD and I’m also on the autistic spectrum.

“During my rugby career I completely brushed all that under the carpet, I ignored the problems and to try and combat them I used rugby as a vehicle to eliminate my demons.

“Because I didn’t feel I was able to communicate my emotions in the environment at Leigh, a lot of these emotions seemed to come out in games.

“I played rugby on a knife edge for the most of my career, I played with anger and aggression out of self-hatred and to get out of my mind.”

That aggression spilled over in one particular game Acton played back in 2017.

“The difficulty with that is it can work well 50% of the time but if someone pushes you, you lose control and I ended up getting multiple bans and then a nine-game ban with the Greg Bird incident.

“Bird had shoulder charged Ben Reynolds and I felt this superior loyalty to Ben, but I didn’t realise until after the game that Bird was knocked out and I picked him up off the floor – I felt ashamed but it was too late.

“The problem with the ban is that it leads to further shame and self-hatred and further creates energy and fire for mental health problems.

“I had a young family at home and wasn’t on that much money, but I would turn to drugs and alcohol to try and deal with all these problems.

“Rugby league takes responsibility for handing out punishments but they do not offer support after.”

Acton also opened up about Leigh owner Derek Beaumont who is never too far away from the headlines.

Beaumont has overseen a roller-coaster period during his tenure as owner at Leigh Sports Village and when asked, Acton went into detail on the man and the sideshow that surrounds him and the game.

“I’ll choose my words carefully, Derek is a character to say the least,” Acton told Serious About Rugby League.

“He’s a special person, but the thing is rugby league wouldn’t survive without personalities like Derek.

“For all the bad stuff that’s said about him, he does things his way which I’ve been on the right and wrong side of.

“I’ve seen first hand how he runs the club. without him the sport wouldn’t be the way it is today.

“It can’t just function on Sky and fans, it needs backers and owners to come in and invest their money for very little return.

“It’s almost just a passion and hobby, so he’s got the capacity do whatever the hell he wants as he’s earned that privilege and that right because he’s earned that money.

“It’s very much a business and Derek treats it like that to keep it afloat – he’s not looking to make money out of it.”

For Acton, rugby league isn’t just the sport in its entirety, he feels there are complexities running right through that makes the game difficult for certain players at certain clubs.

“Any professional will tell you it’s two sports within a sport – you play two games.

“You play rugby and then you play the game ‘how do I associate myself into the culture of the club I am currently at?’

“‘How do I work my personality so I get on with the personalities around me and get picked at the weekend.'”

Acton added: “It’s not as clear cut as you’re the best player and you get picked, it’s understanding how to play that game well depends on who is at the club.

“The culture that has been maintained at Leigh, is that everything comes from Derek – he’s the main man.

“If you cross him be it on your head, if you give Derek what he asks for and do the things he wants then he will back you 100% to the end of the earth.

“It’s just whether your mentality is aligned with his or not.”

Recently, Acton was handed a two-year ban, with Rangi Chase being issued with a month ban earlier this week for positive drug tests.

For Acton, though, he has become an outspoken figure in the harsh realities of drug taking within the sport and has talked exclusively to Serious About Rugby League about a ‘deal’ he was recently offered.

“The people at UK Anti-Doping contacted me to ask if they could come to see me,” Acton said.

“They said ‘you’re not in trouble but we want to speak to you about something. We want to make you an offer and ask you about how we can improve testing procedures to better understand why players dope in rugby league’.

The offer, Acton revealed, was staggering: “I was offered a deal which basically meant if I was willing to provide names of other players who then tested positive, they would take away or reduce my ban.

“It’s a completely legitimate policy, it’s not like a secret thing.

“I don’t believe this deal should be available. If you do get banned you’re so emotionally vulnerable in that situation, so to leverage that emotional vulnerability to try and catch other people, is psychologically very damaging for many reasons.

“For the welfare of players I don’t think the policy should be allowed.

“It goes against rugby ethics because you create a rapport with payers and teams and are then asked to turn around and annihilate someone’s life after standing shoulder to shoulder with them on the pitch.

“It’s a bit different for me as I’m already over two years retired from rugby, but for those still in the game, I think this policy is really damaging.”

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