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I’ve been so close to suicide, says rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson

Steve Thompson was an England hooker (David Davies/P)
Steve Thompson was an England hooker (David Davies/P)

Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson has revealed there were times while filming his BBC documentary about struggling with dementia that he wanted to end his life.

The 43-year-old former England hooker, part of the team which lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Australia in 2003, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy in November 2020.

The former sportsman stars in BBC documentary Head On: Rugby, Dementia And Me which will see him meet brain experts to better understand his progressive and expansive memory loss.

The former sportsman stars in BBC documentary Head On: Rugby, Dementia And Me (BBC/Raw Factual Ltd/Gemma Duncan/PA)

Thompson told the PA news agency: “We’re very private people and before the diagnosis I wasn’t involved in media, we were just living a normal life.

“And then suddenly with the diagnosis, learning what we learned about what was going on and how many people it affected, we made the decision that we had to stand up for people and come out and that’s what we have done.

“Having the cameras in and out is quite hard, it’s a long slog because it’s over an 18-month period. It was an emotional rollercoaster all the way through.”

Thompson previously revealed he had been placed on suicide watch as his struggle with dementia took him to the brink of despair.

He told PA: “I don’t know how I’m still alive to be honest because I’ve been so close to suicide. Even through filming the documentary there were times when I just wanted to end it and I had just had enough.

“It was my doctor that really kept me alive, giving me little hints about perfume on the arm, memory phones, music, so whenever I was feeling really anxious or really low, you try and bring yourself back to your family which keep me alive.

“For me, this is why I have done it, so people see these little tips or see this happening to me, then they can ask questions and I can try and help them.

“I was the last person before to think about killing myself, I know people don’t like me saying it but I used to think people who committed suicide were very weak.

“It’s not until you’re there and at the time you think you’re the most selfless person because you just think you’re not worthy to be around others. You just think that you’re dragging everyone else down and everyone would be better without you, and that’s where I was.”

Steve Thompson Investiture
Steve Thompson, a member of England’s World Cup-winning rugby union side with his MBE after it was presented to him by the Queen at Buckingham Palace (John Stillwell/PA)

The former rugby player, who cannot remember being awarded an MBE by the Queen following England’s victory over Australia in the World Cup final, explained how his wife Steph had been “so strong” for him.

He told PA: “I was in Dubai, my life was going brilliantly, and that’s when it all started happening, I started getting depressed, my memory started going, I just couldn’t remember stuff.

“My work life fell apart. In Dubai, if you haven’t got a work visa you have got to leave so we left and went to Cyprus, I was sitting in the garden for 16 hours a day, just literally not with it, feeling sorry for myself.

“Steph was brilliant with me, there were times when I look back now and just think it must have been horrendous.

“But now we’ve had the diagnosis, and we’re working through it, we’ve probably got a better life now than we’ve ever had in the 10 years we’ve been together.”

Thompson retired in 2011 because of a neck injury. He had previously done so in 2007 as a result of a different neck problem but returned to extend a club career which included spells with Northampton, Brive, Leeds and Wasps.

During his playing days, he was repeatedly concussed and is part of a group of former players bringing a legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.

Steve Thompson and neuropathologist Professor Steve Gentleman during the new BBC documentary (BBC/Raw Factual Ltd/Gemma Duncan/PA)

Thompson told PA there was still “nowhere near” enough done to protect players.

“You saw in the Six Nations last year, players still knocked out but they were playing the next week or they were coming back on the pitch.

“There is still contact in training, there’s still too much. Are the players getting regular brain scans? No, they’re not, which we think they should do.

“If you could see the brain’s been damaged, you’re retired and it’s out of the player’s hands.

“Some people say it should be the player’s decision but when you have brain injuries you’re not thinking correctly, you’re not right.

“You’ve got to rely on people to do their job and that’s where I think we were let down.”

The former England international added that player safety has not been the priority and you “can’t put people’s lives on the line”.

In 2021, Thompson became the first sportsman to pledge his brain to the Concussion Legacy Project.

Head On: Rugby, Dementia And Me airs on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC Two and iPlayer.

Help can be found by calling Samaritans free of charge at any time on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or by visiting Samaritans.org.