Lyttelton rugby player’s death sparks mental health mission

Tane Hipango’s twin brother, Tama, never talked to him or anyone else much about his struggles.

But these struggles got the better of Tama, a Lyttelton Rugby Club division four player, in December when he succumbed to mental illness aged 31.

Now, determined to not see other club members suffer in silence, committee member Aaron Stevens and coach Joseph Tyro ran a workshop last Friday for players and coaches to discuss their mental struggles and arm them with methods to cope.

The workshop was supported by social worker Kereama Carmody. It was part of a pilot programme it is hoped may expand Canterbury and New Zealand-wide.

Hipango thinks an initiative like this may have helped his brother through his battle.

"We would talk not every day, but honestly, almost every second or third day we’d call on the phone, and we would talk about kind of nothing.

"We’d talk mostly about rugby, I suppose, to be honest, and the last text message I got from him was about rugby,’’ he said.

"He never talked to me about his feelings.

"A rugby club is a community space for all kinds of people, and especially those who are, apparently, at risk. It is men, young men in that age bracket from all kinds of walks of life. Having an initiative like that, it brings so much hope.

"It’s the right thing in the right place.”

Lyttelton Rugby Club’s Aaron Stevens and Joseph Tyro. Photo: Geoff Sloan ​
Lyttelton Rugby Club’s Aaron Stevens and Joseph Tyro. Photo: Geoff Sloan ​
Hipango said Tama was "extremely kind" and "an awesome brother" who and was loved by his family.

He wrote poetry in his spare time, some of which, in hindsight, he believes was about his struggles.

The first time Hipango heard Tama was struggling, was from Stevens, who helped get Tama to hospital just in time to save his life after a suspected attempted suicide in June.

Stevens said at the club’s first well-being workshop on Friday, a room of 30 rugby players and coaches were asked how many had considered suicide and 20 put their hands up.

Said Stevens: “[Hearing] people that I said were hard men, hardened rugby players, openly talking about their well-being, I was really proud of those boys, eh.”

Stevens battled anxiety himself after suffering a brain bleed as a result of hitting his head during a rugby game three years ago.

"I’d never had anxiety in my life. I hadn’t suffered from depression, but I banged my head and because I had strength and weakness around the wrong way.

"I thought being a tough man was to [say] it will come right, harden up - but it didn’t.

“The first time I knew I had anxiety, I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was having a stroke ... I ended up in A&E, which resulted in a whole lot of other therapy.”

Tama Hipango (right) never spoke much to his twin brother Tane Hipango about how he was feeling...
Tama Hipango (right) never spoke much to his twin brother Tane Hipango about how he was feeling before his death in December. Photo: Supplied
Tyro, who works in the health sector, said his a message for rugby players is "it’s okay not to be okay".

He said traditional stereotypes about rugby players having to be staunch and harden up when faced with adversity needed to change.

"Concussion is one of the big challenges and also the stereotypes of traditional rugby in the days of that culture - you don’t talk about your feelings, that harden-up kind of attitude.

"We’re trying to change that kind of stereotype and, usually, the alcohol [consumption] after games and all that."

Tyro said key focus is also to help players cope with mental challenges caused by factors like Covid-19, the earthquakes and social media.

Said Christchurch sports and clinical psychologist Graeme Clarke: “Generally males, whether it’s rugby [or] whatever we’re doing, in a Kiwi way, we’ve sort of have this sense of it’s strength to just take care of what you’ve got to and get on with it.”

Clarke said its great to see Lyttelton Rugby Club giving members a platform to not suffer alone.

Former All Blacks winger and mental health campaigner John Kirwan has spoken widely about his battle with depression and the importance of asking for help. He is an advocate for mental health services across New Zealand.

Australian rugby league star Greg Inglis went public last year about being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in 2019 following a second stint in rehab for alcohol problems and depression.

Tama Hipango. Photo: Supplied
Tama Hipango. Photo: Supplied
Tama Hipango’s poem:

See our world at your feet, rise and never retreat.
Roar every heart beat, to fire magics mystique.
As a day drums and sweeps seconds away.
Times lightning strikes once; for fortune for fate . . .
Your home, your heart will never let you fall.
Like the lion you are - forever stand tall.

Where to get help:
• (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202
•SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
• EDANZ, Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand: 0800 EDANZ 0800 543 354
• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, phone 111

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