Joe Marler: Depression and The Power of Vulnerability

·6-min read
Photo credit: Tom Watkins
Photo credit: Tom Watkins
Photo credit: Tom Watkins
Photo credit: Tom Watkins


With 66 caps for England and two for the British and Irish Lions, Joe Marler is at the top of his game. Over the past two years, he has also been tackling his mental health – a fact that didn’t prevent him from being one of England’s few plus points in the 2019 World Cup final loss, though he recently stepped back to spend more time with his family.

His book Loose Head is four parts #banter and one part honest assessment of his mental health journey. Meanwhile, he says that his podcast, The Joe Marler Show, is helping him – and all men – to speak honestly about how we’re feeling. Because it’s good to do so.

Men's Health: You have first-hand experience of how beneficial talking can be for mental health. Is that what prompted you to start your podcast?

Joe Marler: That’s part of it. It came out of speaking to Tom [Fordyce, a journalist and Marler’s co-host]. He had the idea of doing something where we met people from different walks of life. It sounded like a laugh, so I said, “Let’s try.” And I thought, if my mental health improves from talking about it, and it helps others to talk, why can’t a podcast be a tool to do the same, and also make talking about mental health more casual? When you talk one on one with someone, it can get very serious. Your tone of voice drops – at least, mine does. So, [the podcast] is a way of encouraging people to talk. It’s definitely been a fantastic tool for my own benefit.

MH: In a standout episode, “About Men”, two people movingly recount their mental health problems and how they dealt – and deal – with them.

JM: They were incredible. It’s so important to own your story and accept that talking about it to others will allow others to talk and open up more. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: it's good to talk. It’s fucking great to talk. Even sitting here talking to Men’s Health! Just a little communication makes you feel less isolated, if that’s how you’re feeling.

MH: The flip side of more talking is listening. What have you learned about being a good listener?

JM: More often than not, men try to be the alpha, trying to ram opinions down someone else’s throat – to be the voice that’s heard, or the one that’s right. So, it can be tough being a shoulder for someone, to actually listen and ask the right questions. Doing that is easy – and hard. For me, it’s definitely about trying to see what resonates with me, and whether I can help by sharing an experience that I’ve had. But sometimes, the person might just need an ear, or want to vent. You can let them, and you can ask them if they want some answers. But you should know that no one has the answers to everything.

MH: Since you told your story, have people – perhaps fellow rugby players – said that your openness has helped them to deal with their own mental health

JM: Yeah. Some took me by surprise, people I wouldn’t necessarily say I was close with. But they’ve messaged me to say, “I had no idea that was going on but, brother, it resonates with me massively, and I just want to say I’m here for you. Like I know you’ll be there for me.”

Photo credit: Steve Bardens - RFU - Getty Images
Photo credit: Steve Bardens - RFU - Getty Images

MH: Coaching now involves both physical and psychological well-being. Are professional sportsmen getting better at discussing mental health?

JM: We know we have to be mentally strong and physically fit, and yet we’re still rubbing up against the fact that people don't want to talk about their mind, even though we need to be mentally sharp to compete at the top level. There’s a disconnect. Work and sport and the other parts of your life are not separate: your psychology is your psychology. It’s all one thing. How can I possibly focus on using those specific psychological skills forsport if I’m suffering from depression and anxiety away from rugby?

MH: Do you have a routine built from what you’ve learned from professionals?

JM: Talking to a psychiatrist was great, and he gave me a lot of advice on the medical side of things: how the brain works, the chemicals and antidepressants that are available. I haven’t seen a therapist officially, but I’ve learned some of their techniques. I’ve spoken to various people, including friends, but also people that I’ve randomly come across and then opened up to. Because it just feels that little bit easier to open up to complete strangers.

MH: Did writing your story make it easier?

JM: Possibly. When I was writing the mental health chapters [in Loose Head], someone said, “Are you sure you want to go down this route? You’re going to open yourself up to critics.” But I own my story if I tell it. It’s given me a willingness to talk more and listen to others’ stories – so much so that I’m making a documentary, meeting people who’ve suffered with mental health issues, mental health professionals, all kinds of people related to this topic.

MH: What do you do to look after your mental health?

JM: Being mentally healthy, like everything else, is about putting certain things in place. There are techniques I use when I feel my red mist; sometimes they work, and other times they don’t. The biggest thing was learning to recognise when I was going to start feeling that way: knowing what triggers it and finding ways to deal with it early. And to know that there’ll always be these moments. My mental health is the same as my physical health. In both, you can put on weight or lose weight; you can put on muscle the same way as you can control how you want to attack the day. You can’t control what might be thrown at you. But you can control how you react to it.

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