Ireland legend Keith Earls has opened up about the mental health challenges he has faced in his life, including being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Earls has made 93 Ireland appearances during a sterling rugby career to date – including helping his country to a Grand Slam back in 2018 – and has now taken the lead in removing the stigma around talking about mental health by revealing his own battles.
He is one of the Championship’s all-time great players, having scored 14 tries in 45 matches and also sits second on Ireland’s top try-scorers list with 34, behind only Brian O’Driscoll.
But on Friday night, the 34-year-old was making his mark off the pitch – promoting his new autobiography: ‘Fight Or Flight: My Life, My Choices’ on Late Late Show on RTÉ, where he spoke candidly about his bipolar diagnosis and other mental health challenges he has confronted.
He explained that he first suffered a mental health episode as a 12-year-old – having a panic attack so severe that he feared he was going to die, after learning his 19-year-old cousin had been killed in a car accident.
He said: “I was sitting at home on the couch and my parents were at work and I remember thinking ‘I wasn’t going to see my cousin ever again’, and then it just went downhill from there, I was thinking about when I die, I will never see my parents.
“I was shaking, I was trembling and then the panic attack started. I didn’t know what it was. I genuinely, genuinely thought I was going to die. I came around after a few minutes.
“I kept it all quiet, didn’t really speak about it. I suppose the fact I didn’t know what it was, I was a small bit embarrassed, maybe.
“I have had a couple of them throughout my career as well and it did take me a long time to talk about stuff.”
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It was not until 2013 – as a 25-year-old – that Earls first made the decision to seek help for his mental health challenges, when he saw a psychiatrist.
He said: “I was in camp in 2013. I am in Irish camp, Joe Schmidt is just taking over the Irish team. I should be on cloud nine.
“My daughter, Ella Maye, my first girl, was born in 2012 and she was born with a respiratory condition, and my emotions were everywhere.
“My paranoia was through the roof. My negative thinking, it was shocking, and I was so sick of it. It was absolutely draining me.”
Earls, who also toured South Africa with the British & Irish Lions in 2009, decided that enough was enough and got in touch with the doctor, who diagnosed him with bipolar II disorder.
He added: “I went down to see a guy in Cork, a psychiatrist, and he diagnosed me with bipolar II.
“There is obviously bipolar I as well, but bipolar II is probably the better out of the two to get. I was delighted to get the diagnosis; I was genuinely losing my mind.
“Thankfully over the last couple of years, I have got a great hold on it. I have found my identity, which I think was part of the problem as well. I didn’t know who I was, and I was always trying to be other people.
“I didn’t know when I was Keith, I didn’t know when I was Hank (the name he gives to his depressive side). And thankfully I can tell the difference now.”
Earls’ decision to reveal all whilst still playing shows the leadership and maturity he possesses, and he is hopeful that by doing so, others will feel capable of doing the same.
He said: “I wanted to tell my story because…if I can help anyone, even it was in the general public, any one of my team-mates to talk to someone before it gets too late.
“I think that’s what saved me, stepping up and not being embarrassed and speaking to someone and telling someone that I was struggling.”