Mental health: Ashton Hewitt ‘overwhelmed’ by racist abuse

Image source, Huw Evans Photo Agency

Comment on the photo, Ashton Hewitt wants rugby to overcome ‘old masculinity’ at the expense of mental health

  • author, Lloyd died
  • Role, BBC Sport Wales

Ashton Hewitt assumed that he experienced most types of racism when he was in his late twenties.

The grandson of Gil Windrush, the Welsh rugby player suffered abuse in various forms while growing up in Newport.

But his decision to use social media as a tool to encourage social change will come at a cost and lead to some “dark” times.

Among the shocking material sent were images of black people being attacked, a gorilla behind bars and people wondering if he was Welsh.

Now, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week – which runs until May 19 – Hewitt is encouraging young people to seek support.

He is pushing for rugby to overcome “old school masculinity” by urging players to “open up” about the difficulties they face, especially at a time when a career in Welsh rugby appears more precarious than ever.

“I didn’t interact much on social media until I started talking about things that mattered to me in terms of social change and equality,” Hewitt, 29, said.

“Some of the conversations were inspiring, especially speaking with young people who really responded to someone speaking about experiences that mirrored their own.

“But I was overwhelmed by the trolls that came my way and I didn’t handle that well. It really frustrated me.”

“I thought I could engage with them in constructive conversations, but what came my way was terrible. There were people who hated black people.”

“I’ve experienced racism since I was a child, but the intent behind some of these things was shocking. It was the worst I’ve ever been through and very stressful. It took a while before I learned how to take care of myself mentally.”

Internet abuse is not the only challenge facing athletes.

Isolating long-term injury is just one of the challenges professional athletes face, but Hewitt believes rugby still has a long way to go to embrace more openness about mental health.

Insecurity of contract

Criticism and scrutiny may be seen as ‘part of the job’, but the economic struggles across Welsh rugby – with the four regions facing further budget cuts next season – have only heightened those pressures.

“There is pressure and criticism on social media as well as injuries, but now there is real concern about contracts and jobs,” Hewitt said.

“The contract situation in Welsh rugby over the last year has been very difficult for players. Some of them did not know whether they would have a job in a few months’ time.

“The pressure is not just about winning a game at the weekend, it is about whether they can provide for their families and that brings a lot of pressure.

“You’d like to think things will get better because Welsh rugby has been in a very dark place.”

Image source, Huw Evans Photo Agency

Comment on the photo, Ashton Hewitt has been with the Dragons since he was 16 years old

She was called a dragon Mental health charity Mind Cymru To speak to players while Ashton, as president of the Welsh Rugby Players’ Union, pushed for mental health first aid sessions.

“There is more awareness of mental health in rugby, but the amount of work generated from it is another question,” he said.

“Toxic masculinity”

“There are people pushing this conversation but there is still an old school mentality based on some very toxic masculinity where we are told to be physically strong and you are expected to be mentally strong as well.

“But even players in the game have long been aware that this is not the best way. Just look at Owen Farrell who was so brave in saying he couldn’t handle that pressure and was willing to walk away from something he loved.

“We need to change the culture to encourage players to open up and normalize those conversations without fear that it will affect the selection or even the contract.”

Mind Cymru said as many as one in five young people suffer from mental health problems, but many have to wait a long time for support.

Sue O’Leary, director of Wales, said: “As Ashton can attest, simply finding a trusted advocate and speaking out is an important first step.

“The types of social problems and issues facing young people are complex and require new supportive approaches – especially in the digital age which has come with challenges as well as opportunities.

“The support is there. Throughout Wales, there are pockets of brilliance in terms of provision for children and young people, but this needs to become commonplace.”

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this story, BBC action line It has links to organizations that can provide help and advice.

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