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"I can make a difference"

NSW centre Josh Dugan has had a well-publicised career in the Telstra Premiership.

The Australian international has endured highs and lows both on and off the field - and in some cases for the world to see. 

He wants it known he's no different to you. 

Dugan has spoken openly in the past about the impact that mental health has had on his life and on his immediate family.

Suicide is the largest killer of individuals aged 15-44 in Australia and no person is immune to mental health issues. 

In a coming-of-age interview, Dugan spoke to NRL.com about why he decided to join the NRL State of Mind campaign; a community that is striving to make a difference for both sportspeople and society. 

"When I was a child I had a good friend of mine commit suicide and my uncle did as well so it is something that hits close to home for me and that's the major driving factor to be involved," Dugan told NRL.com.

"When my uncle committed suicide I always had the idea that he took the easy option and wasn't tough enough to stick it out, but now that I've learnt a lot more about it I have a whole new mentality towards what he did. 

"For someone to get to that darkest point, something has gone wrong and now for me it's about trying to help people avoid getting to that point, but if they do they know they have options to help them out of it.

"I feel like I've got a little bit of experience in that aspect and suffering from anxiety myself I thought it was a good time to help people and jump on board to break that stigma.

"There are a lot of people out there that a couple of years ago would have been afraid to help where as I think now we're starting to break down that wall.

"I feel like I can make a difference."

Dark days in Canberra

It was on the eve of the 2013 season that Dugan had a contract with the Raiders terminated for a range of off-field incidents that also forced the Brisbane Broncos – a club that was chasing him – to head in another direction. 

The final straw came when Dugan missed a Raiders recovery session to drink alcohol and both teammates and the club decided it was time to let him go.  

"It was the lowest point of my life and I was on the verge of something pretty bad. Looking back now I realise how lucky I was to get through that period," Dugan said.  

"There were times where I'd be in bed for three days straight and not answering anyone who called – not even my parents or close friends.

"It came to a point where one of my best mates got a phone call from my dad and had to come and find me because no one had seen me for a week.

"I learnt a lot about myself growing from that situation in Canberra and it has made me a better person and realise a lot of things. 

"My partner and family have been massive for me and without that support it would've been a lot tougher and that's why we're here to provide people with that option if they don't have that support network."

Lifeline at the Dragons

Such was the talent of Dugan at a young age, it was inevitable a rival club would pick the South Tuggeranong junior.

There was nothing wrong with Dugan's ability on the paddock – a Telstra Premiership debut at 19, Origin representative two years later and ranked as one of the best fullbacks the game had in 2009 alongside Billy Slater and Jarryd Hayne.

For all the accolades and achievements, it was in the mind that he knew he needed help. 

St George Illawarra came calling but there were factors into his return to the game – just two months after his fall from grace in the nation's capital. 

"Some of the demands from the NRL were to see a life coach, have counselling and make sure I'm in the right frame of mind to be back playing football," Dugan said.

"We looked at my personality and what sort of jobs I would suit away from the game and a social or community worker really seemed to appeal to me. 

"It was massive for me coming to the Dragons and having guys with the same interests.'Thommo' (Joel Thompson) and Dan Hunt are massive in the community and have been a real driving force to inspire me to keep working hard with it.

"I've now done my mental health first aid and certificate three and four in social work."

Spreading the message

Dugan revealed he has long been a part of mental health programs to help everyday Australians, and while in 2017 it was the first time he's been involved in the NRL programs, the decision was based around his own personal growth and ensuring the timing was right. 

"I was with a non-for-profit organisation called 'FTW' who work closely with black dog and focus on everyone - not just sports people," he said. 

"One in two people will experience something in their lifetime and the more avenues we have available for people to take the more they'll be helped to get through it."

Athletes are only humans. 

While they're paid well, they still live in the same world as everyone else. 

Dugan insists the days where he used to take offence to negative media or comments online are over. 

In a community where it is encouraged to speak out, sometimes a conversation is all it takes to save someone's life.  

"The pressures that we have on ourselves as professional athletes in our job are enough, and then we are scrutinised after having a bad game and cop backlash," Dugan said. 

"Sometimes people don't realise the impact that it has. You have injuries, performances, and relationships in the team and away from the game – everything is a factor and that's why we say it's not weak to speak.

"My skin got a lot thicker as I was copping it and you learn how to cope after experiencing things.

"It's like any person, there may be negativity going on in your life that is leading to you feeling down. 

"Sport is no different, it's an added factor for athletes. It's a job and everyone has their own job that can experience pressures at some point."

Growing into a leader

Dugan is committed to the Dragons until the end of the season after confirming a move to the Cronulla Sharks in 2018. 

While all NRL clubs have strong welfare departments in place, Dugan had high praise for the current set-up in Wollongong.

At 27 years of age, he is now talking to players who are in the position he was in almost a decade ago.

"I always try and have a chat to the younger guys in the team and it just comes down to a welfare thing for me now," he said.

"I feel like I've got experience now and always tell the boys I'm available and make sure I go out of my way.

"One of the young guys got dropped a few weeks ago and I just told him to keep his head up and stay motivated, because in this sport it can get you down."

Dugan is an example of an everyday Australian committed to making a difference.

David Shillington joins the frontline of mental health
Read Matt Cecchin's powerful story
Read Reni Maitua's story on mental health

Read Joel Thompson's story
The importance of mental health

The NRL's State of Mind program is supported in partnership with expert health partners: Kids Helpline, The Black Dog Institute, headspace, Lifeline and New Zealand based organisation, Le Va. 

For more information on the NRL's State of Mind program and other Community Programs that the NRL delivers, visit www.nrl.com/forchange 

The 'Power For Change' campaign builds on the narrative of existing community programs and initiatives undertaken year-round by all levels of the Game and supported more broadly throughout communities.