‘I’ve had to climb out of the depths of darkness’ – Luther Burrell on mental health issues, racism and his Test career

Alex Spink
Luther Burrell Newcastle Falcons 2021 - Alamy.jpg

Former England centre Luther Burrell.

Former England star Luther Burrell had the world at his feet when last Northampton finished the regular season on top of the English Premiership.

The Saints centre was an ever-present in the Red Rose midfield, delivering for a club which had become national champions for the first time the previous summer.

A home Rugby World Cup was just months away and the bookies had England down as second favourites to win the fifth-largest single-sport event ever held.

Nine years on, Northampton are again flying high and will clinch top spot, for only the second time, with victory at Bath on Saturday.

Burrell is thrilled for the club he loves but at a loss to know what he has done to warrant the hardships that have befallen him in those intervening years.

Mental health issues

“My mental health has taken a battering,” he tells Planet Rugby. “I’ve gone through adversity, some pretty tough times. I’ve had to climb out of the depths of darkness.”

Burrell is talking today because Mental Health Awareness Week is coming to an end and it is important for him to show those struggling that the light at the end of the tunnel is within reach.

He starts with a quick summary of events which began that August day in 2015 with the bombshell news he had lost out on World Cup selection to union-rookie Sam Burgess.

He can still make no sense of that, nor of what happened when he won back his place in 2016 only for Eddie Jones to hook him inside the first half hour against Australia and England never picking him again.

His career would take him to Super League for a season with Warrington Wolves before his playing days ended at Newcastle after he claimed racism was ‘rife’ in rugby union, sparking an RFU investigation which found in his favour.

“I stand by my belief that speaking out around institutional racism and lack of equality had a detrimental effect on my career,” he says. “Because I did not retire on my own terms. I was forced into that corner.

“Who was touching me for the 10 months the RFU investigation was going on? I’d done nothing wrong, but it just wasn’t happening. There was potential for me to go to a couple of places, both fell through.”

Burrell sees some parallels between the situation in which he found himself and that of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose playing career never recovered after he ‘took the knee’ during the US national anthem in protest at police brutality and racial inequality in America.

It would be easy for him to be consumed by bitterness, and more than once in our conversation he talks of his face “not fitting”.

But rather than give in to that feeling the 36-year old is resolved to using lessons learned in his rollercoaster life experience to equip others faced with mental health challenges.

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“I feel I can be a beacon of hope and empower others in this space,” he says.

“I’m talking to men, especially, here because the data would suggest 75% of suicides across the UK are men. 12 a day are taking their own lives. That’s ridiculous.

“Some of the reasons are relationship breakdowns. I’ve had that. Financial difficulties. Had that. Unemployment. Had that too. I understand the pressures that come with all those things.

“I still struggle myself, there are days I’m sure we all feel down. But I want to help men to talk and have these conversations.”

Earlier this month Wolves football club joined the conversation about male mental health and suicide with a video of a man wearing a blindfold and holding a sign highlighting the issue and inviting passers-by for a hug or a chat.

Inside three weeks it has been viewed online more than 15 million times.

‘Support and communication’ important

“It’s about support and communication, spreading the message that you can come through tough times,” said Burrell.

“I don’t have all the solutions but what I can do is amplify the voices of people who are going through stressful times of discrimination.”

He gives an example of a 14-year old boy who has been self-harming so that he does not have to go to school and attend his rugby club as he has been subject to discrimination and racial ‘banter’.

“The RFU knows about it,” says Burrell. “One of those responsible was banned for two games. That’s it.

“We can talk about education because that is paramount but who is instilling that? Who is going to that club and educating those players so it doesn’t happen again?”

Burrell was contacted by the boy and his mother and says he will be “there for him” in support going forward.

“It’s about being an influence, about trying to empower, upskill and educate people and give them hope and motivation to tackle certain negative situations occurring in their lives,” the Yorkshireman explains.

It won’t turn the clock back and retrieve the World Cup place he lost out on. Nor will it correct other wrongs he feels have been done to him.

But just as Northampton are hitting the heights again so their former midfielder is also back in a good place.

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