The Irish rugby player wants to open up a conversation, starting with her own journey from the despair of a year ago to the hope of today
In October 2019, rugby player Judy Bobbett achieved a childhood dream when she was capped for the Irish women’s senior rugby team.
It had been years in the making, having started rugby with Ashbourne, been a mascot for the Irish team in 2010 and captaining the Leinster U-18s in 2017. Yet, it was one of the toughest weeks of her life, mentally.
“Even as a kid, I felt like I was always off, I didn’t feel normal, felt like I was the only one going through them, none of my friends had these emotions that I did, and I kept them to myself for years.
“I always wanted to play with Ireland, that was my goal, my dream since I was a child, but that week I felt mentally ill, really sick. I didn’t think I was going to play, it was really bad at that point. I didn’t tell anyone, kept it to myself, and went out, played.
“The game itself we ended up losing, and as a first cap went, I didn’t perform, but at some point, I looked over to the bench, and was very close to asking to come off. I felt like s*** on the pitch to put it like that.”
After all that, there was the post-match meal in UCD to endure.
“I remember sitting down and the food was coming out, and I had to go outside, bawling my eyes out after my first cap. I’ve never told anyone this, but I was sitting outside crying. There was me, so emotional, so anxious, so depressed about everything, there for about half an hour, before going back in. It’s sad to look back and think of my first cap like that, as so emotional.”
In the year after her debut, there had been little time to reflect and nothing seemed to be getting better.
“I hit rock bottom,” she recalls now. “I’d never dealt with what happened the year before, I’d confided in team-mates, but I never got help, just brushed it away. I was very suicidal, in and out of training the few months before that – the summer when things (restrictions) lifted again – with Ireland. I was like, ‘I don’t even want to play rugby anymore’. I just had no motivation, no interest in playing. At that point, nothing mattered, I didn’t care about life. I was in camp one weekend, that was one camp where I actually felt good, the girls were due to play a game, Italy I think. I knew I wasn’t going to get played. I was fine with that.”
What did “good” feel like at that time?
“Being stress-free, that feeling of being absolutely on cloud nine, that’s what I chase for, every day, I suppose. With depression, every day can be hard and you might only get 10 minutes of a day where you’re feeling good. Same with anxiety, they go hand in hand. That camp, before the hospital, they say before you are suicidal, you’re the happiest you’ve ever been because ultimately – I’ll say it as it is – the stress is gone. I remember that camp going so well because I knew two days later that I wasn’t going to be here. No matter how bad the camp went, it didn’t matter.”
Thankfully, Judy was brought into the St John of God psychiatric hospital soon after. “I kept that very quiet. I came from training with the girls and one weekend, I was gone. I didn’t know how to deal with it, didn’t know how to tell people I was in the hospital. I was embarrassed. And because of Covid, no one could visit and I couldn’t leave.
“I dunno if I’d have appreciated the idea of what a psychiatric hospital was,” she adds. “It’s hard to explain, more like a residential place where you check in with yourself, you get better.
“As tough as it was, it was the best thing I could ever do. I went from (the Irish team) bubble to this one, being best friends with a 70-year-old man with depression. I’d be there at 10pm having tea and biscuits with people with the same struggles, where we could openly talk about them. It was the first time I felt normal.”
For those who did know about her struggles, Bobbett has nothing but good things to say about their support.
“Adam Griggs (outgoing women’s head coach) and Anthony Eddy (director of women’s rugby) were fantastic. One lady I couldn’t thank enough was Orlaith Curran, the S&C coach, who has probably heard me cry a million times. I don’t think I would have gone through it if she wasn’t there. Every camp, she made sure I was OK if she saw I was about to cry, she’d pull me out of the room, way beyond her job!
“The first step – I think it’s probably the hardest – is telling people you’re low. I first confided in my team-mates in Blackrock, they were the first people I told and they were telling me for ages to get help. They pleaded with me for months, and when I finally did it, that’s when things got better. It makes all the difference.
“Also, Rugby Players Ireland are a group that runs alongside all the national teams. They’ve provided me with, at this stage, 15/20 counselling sessions. They were with me the whole way through, with player development managers, checking in with you every week, asking what they can do, ‘do you need to see your counsellor?’
“They definitely don’t get enough credit, but between management and themselves, they’ve been 100pc.
“It’s easy to shut the door on someone when they’re struggling, but they didn’t, and they still haven’t.”
In the first conversation for this interview, Judy spoke from St John of God, although with a different outlook than her first time.
“I’m back in hospital for a few weeks,” she says. “I was embarrassed at the start, but this time around, it was different. I put myself in, no one asked me. I noticed the difference and felt my mood getting lower. When I told my close friends, they didn’t even notice I was in a poor mood, so it was good that I was aware.
“I’m not 100pc better, but 100pc wanting to get better. The difference was that I did not want to get better last year. I’m still struggling, obviously, but now I actually have hope.
“It’s crazy how far I’ve come in a year. I literally didn’t care, really didn’t care about anything, and nothing mattered. Only that I had a good group of friends like, ‘Judy, you need to go to hospital’, or I wouldn’t have gone. I would love to go back to Ireland rugby, but that’s where it is now. Like I would love to be back in Ireland [camp], but I don’t want to ruin my progression.
“At the end of the day, I’m 21, I’m sure I have a couple of years ahead to play rugby. I used to panic and put the rugby first, and myself second. When you’re getting to the point where you’re not wanting to play rugby, or do things, it’s time to change.”
We chat again when Judy is out of hospital, where she has been for approximately a month. “I’m thankful that it’s there, but I don’t want to go back. It’s good to know that I can always go there if needed.”
None of this is easy, not least speaking publicly about it, whether on her own Instagram page on World Mental Health Day or to a journalist, so what made her decide to do so?
“(In St John of God) We get a few hours out at the weekend, so a couple of weeks ago – I’d been in about two weeks at that stage – I decided to go see Blackrock’s game against Wicklow.
“I didn’t tell anyone that I was in the hospital, and people were asking why I wasn’t playing or coming to training. I ended up lying, saying that I was injured, that I’d hurt my back.
“I left the match quite upset, to be honest. I was sick of lying about it, I’d been lying for years. I just wasn’t ready to talk about it. About a week later, I put up the post (on Instagram). People I’m close to knew the whole time, but now I’m ready to talk about it.
“I just wanted to open up the conversation. So many people messaged me about that Instagram post, people I didn’t even know and from all over. It’s nice to see athletes talking like this. It’s way more common than you’d think. With depression, you’re always going to be scared of hitting that low again, but for me, it’s about finding that balance.
“On a bad day, I can’t get stuck in my head thinking it’s going to be a bad week or month. But I’m feeling positive and looking forward to the future. I’m excited.”
If you have been impacted by any issues in this article, please contact the Samaritans for free on 116 123 or at samaritans.ie