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Matt Cecchin's powerful mental health message

Matt Cecchin had made bigger decisions in his career, bigger mistakes in bigger matches too, but something in his mind changed and he no longer wanted to be a referee. 

It was a burden he was carrying privately until it reached a crippling crescendo. Cecchin was so distressed that he was going to fake an injury. 

He no longer wanted to do the thing he loved. Something was seriously wrong, he just didn't know what.

As an NRL State of Mind ambassador, Cecchin has a powerful story to tell and is looking to break down stigmas of mental health and related issues.

"The main message is that mental health is diagnosable and treatable; it is something that can be looked after," Cecchin said.

"It is not something that means you are less of a person, or not capable of doing what you do. That's the big thing. 

"The connotations of being damaged goods or crazy, that is from decades and decades ago when we didn't know as much as we do now. 

"As we talk about it more, we'll realise how common and prevalent it is. We'll realise it is a treatable illness that can be fixed, not that you are damaged goods for life.

"It is a condition, the brain is just another part of your body."

"It is a treatable illness that can be fixed, not that you are damaged goods for life."

Matt cecchin.

The State of Mind program is not just lip service paid by the NRL. The 30 ambassadors are already making a massive difference in the community. 

One in two Australians will experience mental illness in their lifetime; one in five will suffer from it this year. 

With suicide the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15-44, the issue is as real and serious as it gets – something Cecchin knows all too well.

"A young referee got my number through the program and said he was thinking about committing suicide," Cecchin candidly revealed. 

"My initial reaction was 'you'll be right mate, don't be silly, what game have you got this week' and try to sweep it under the carpet – but we are trained to do the total opposite of that. 

"We are taught to ask questions – where are you now, how long have you been feeling this way, who else is around you, where is your family, what can I do to help you in the short term, do you want to stay on the line until I can get you some help?

"It is very real to that person. Often as Aussie males in particular – our attitude is 'she'll be right mate'.

"Long story short, that referee has received the treatment he needed and is in a really good spot. That to me was a real eye-opener."

Cecchin's trigger

Cecchin had erred in a Round 3 match between the Eels and the Bulldogs in 2016, asking the NRL Bunker to rule on a forward pass (something they aren't allowed to do). It was a simple mistake that put pressure on the entire system and brought unwanted scrutiny to the referees. 

It affected him deeply in the aftermath, he had officiated in over 300 NRL matches, making almost 400 decisions every match, but this one decision rocked his world. 

Cecchin was at a loss to know why it had affected him so deeply. He had made bigger mistakes in bigger matches, but this one decision affected him profoundly. 

The following week he didn't want to referee, didn't want to do anything. It was crippling. 

"That's the thing with mental health, it doesn't discriminate, or choose it's time, I had no control over it," Cecchin told NRL.com. 

"I had made bigger decisions in my time refereeing, and have made bigger decisions and made other mistakes since seeking help and haven't been affected. 

"This one incident, the one decision affected me. It wasn't something I had control over. 

"It doesn't pick and choose. The incident which caused it, it certainly was a big one and got some coverage, but I've certainly had bigger mess-ups in my career, and come through relatively unaffected. 

"You need to accept it, I have been well since I got treated. I might never need help again, I might need it next week, you just never know."

"It's no different than a sprained ankle or a physical injury. There is no stigma around going to a physio and there should be no stigma around seeking help. It is the exact same thing and that is important for people to know."

As a senior referee Cecchin understands that his decisions not only affect the teams playing, but also the referees that follow him. 

It was a mistake that festered in his mind and affected him like nothing before. 

"It put a whole heap of attention on the game that wasn't needed and I felt responsible for that," he said.

"My decisions affect the referees that go after me. I was one of feeling responsible and then feeling like I had to blame other people and went into a position of not wanting to do it all. 

"It went to conjuring stories and thoughts to justify my actions and a lot of that came from not knowing what the issue was." 

He was angry, he was distressed and he didn't know why. He looked to blame others, looked for excuses, anything to vindicate the way he was feeling under the heavy weight of pressure. 

And then a quick conversation with a therapist changed his mindset almost instantaneously. 

If the game hadn't changed, the pressure and the scrutiny hadn't changed, then it must have been an internal change. 

It was the lightbulb moment that Cecchin needed to get better.

"That's why last year when I did seek the services of someone, I wasn't in a good way, I initially did not tell anyone after I sought treatment," he said. 

"I struggled for weeks. I speak to a lot of people, I'm not a closed book, and it took five minutes with the therapist to realise that I can feel better. 

"The therapist quickly pointed out that my environment hasn't changed in the last five or six years and once we realised that, we knew that my psyche or mindset has changed. 

"She helped me learn why I react in certain situations and why I've coped in the past and get me back to that stage.

"While it is important to talk to loved ones and those closest to you, they are not trained to help you the way a specialist can. It's no different than a sprained ankle or a physical injury. There is no stigma around going to a physio and there should be no stigma around seeking help. It is the exact same thing and that is important for people to know."

Cecchin sought help and got the support he needed to get better. Such was his transformation that he refereed the Grand Final that same year. 

Giving support to young referees

While NRL referees know that pressure and scrutiny comes with the territory, Cecchin is very conscious of the young referees coming through the grades. 

It's not an easy job at any level of the game and is often a thankless pastime. 

It is why after State of Origin I, Cecchin stayed in Brisbane at the request of former player and current Queensland State of Mind project officer David Shillington to talk to a group of Queensland referees. 

"The scrutiny is at every level of our game, with officiating. As a kid you hear the comments from mums and dads who are very passionate about their kids playing, they forget you are just a kid getting paid a hamburger and a milkshake.

"I try to get to junior games and walk around and talk to people and ask them if they watched last night's games. 'Did you see me make mistakes?' And they say yes, and I say well this kid is going to make mistakes, but he is doing his best. 

"When you are a kid running around, you always do the physical drills, exercise and training, but we never do anything with mental health and young referees. 

"I see us having dedicated sessions as a weekly ongoing maintenance program for our officials at all levels, because it is such a crucial part of what we do."

"For referees we don't win or lose every week, it is hard to get an indication of how your performance really was. 

"You tend to build really good relationships with your fellow referees, and they tend to know when you are going well or not, and will support you."

The future

Since seeking help, Cecchin has established himself as the premier referee in the game. He is passionate about breaking down the stigmas around mental health and believes regular mental health sessions will become the norm. 

"There are different forms of mental health, it is not just about depression. It is anxiety, it's about substance abuse, it opened my eyes to other people that I have had involved in my life that suffered from mental health who masked it with other issues or substances which compounded the initial problem without seeking help. 

"Some of that is a generational thing with age, some of it is a fear of getting help and the stigma of mental health. 

"We think about all the campaigns we have on long weekends about double-demerits and alcohol and gambling. A lot of those conditions can be caused by underlying mental health issues. If they are treated early then hopefully people don't have to go through the pain that they are going through. 

"Going forward, I see myself as being here for any official at any level, if they would want to get in contact with me at any time, to offer them that initial support and help them and get them the treatment they need."

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.