'It was overwhelming': Dragons rugby player Ashton Hewitt on mental health impact of racist abuse

  • ITV Wales' Matt Southcombe sat down with Ashton Hewitt.

Like all professional rugby players, Ashton Hewitt has a tough exterior.

Through years of hard work and dedication, he has built a body that can do things most cannot.

He is a robust individual, built to withstand enormous collisions. Built to run through brick walls.

But everyone is fighting a battle nobody knows anything about and Hewitt is ready to talk about his.

The winger admits he would be in the tunnel before matches wondering if those abusing him online were in the crowd. Credit: ITV Wales

We meet in the dressing room at Rodney Parade. It is a room he has sat in thousands of times.

It’s a room where Hewitt and his team-mates don their metaphorical armour before battle, mask any physical weaknesses with strapping and any mental vulnerabilities with silence.

But now, during Mental Health Awareness Week, it is time to talk.

Over his years growing up in Newport, Hewitt experienced racism in different forms.

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But the modern world has brought a new vehicle for hate and it sits in the palm of everyone’s hand.

Hewitt began using his platform on social media to raise awareness of social inequalities in society.

He wanted to be a voice for change and instead he became a target.

On a daily basis, he would receive torrents of abuse, usually from anonymous accounts. The nature of the vitriol being spewed into his mobile phone was harrowingly racist.

As a result, his mental health suffered.

“It was having a massive impact,” he told ITV Wales. “And it wasn't until my partner told me that I needed to stop and take a step back because she could notice that I wasn't being myself. Losing my temper, just being really sensitive to things.

“I never thought I would receive some of the abuse that I did as frequently as I did. Every time I'd tweet.

Ashton is opening up on his own struggles during Mental Health Awareness Week. Credit: ITV Wales

“I've always experienced racism at some point in my life in different forms, different ways. But the stuff that I was getting on Twitter was just completely overwhelming.”

To his eternal credit, the winger - who is a grandson of the Windrush generation - chose to engage and he suffered further.

“I was a bit naive in thinking that I had this mission to educate and, you know, change the world and do my little bit.

“I was trying to engage with absolutely everybody who was trolling me or sending me abuse and making racist comments.

“I always just looked at it in the sense of for every 50 trolls, if I can change someone's mind and change their outlook and their perspective and eradicate racism in that one person, then it would be worth it.

“I just exhausted myself on the platform, and it got to a point where it was just counterproductive and taking its toll mentally on me. It got too much.”

Hewitt was attempting to reason with accounts who had no interest in reasoned discussion.

The 29-year-old winger is known on the pitch for his power and speed. Credit: PA Images

And the weight of the abuse he experienced began to impact those around him.

He explains: “It was probably one of the most difficult things to deal with for me. A lot of times my mum would be crying, seeing the stuff that was being said to me. My younger sister couldn't understand why I was putting myself in the position that I was - to take all of that abuse.

“[It brought back] incidents of racism as a kid that I'd forgotten about. My mum would reflect on them, questioning if she'd dealt with things and done enough herself to sort of protect me or make a difference in whatever environment it was.”

Things rolled over into his professional life as a rugby player too. He admits that there were occasions he would be walking down the tunnel ready to enter the field in a poor mental state.

Some of the abuse he’d receive would relate to his performance. Some hoped he suffered a nasty injury.

He’d ponder whether some of those who were abusing him on social media were in the stands.

“I didn’t expect it to cross over and for the trolls to start targeting my performances on the pitch,” he admits.

“As a professional athlete, you’re used to criticism but I was receiving racial abuse directly related to whatever game it was on the weekend.

“I'd end up sitting in the car after a game, you know, not pulling off straight away. I was on my phone thinking ‘right, who has said what about me? Who is being racist and what am I going to have to address?’

“And then on the drive home, I'd be thinking ‘right, how do I respond to this?’ And it was just consuming everything.”

The abuse Ashton received online would trigger memories of racism he experienced growing up. Credit: ITV Wales

Hewitt admits the rugby environment is not an easy place to be vulnerable and to discuss any mental challenges you might be dealing with.

There is a long way to go but, happily, that situation is evolving for the better. Hewitt is an ambassador for charity Mind Cymru, who have been invited by the Dragons to speak to their players. He is championing more help for his peers in his role as chair of the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association.

Hewitt’s experiences did make him question whether his efforts to highlight discrimination and educate the ignorant were worth it.

Fortunately, he has also enjoyed many positive conversations and his tweets have sparked further discussion and even real-world connections.

He has been invited into schools to speak to children and received letters from youngsters who "felt represented to some extent, they could relate to the things that I was saying".

But there is more work to be done.

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“People like to think that it's going away,” he says. “But I think society is still in a bit of a mess.”

Hewitt turned the tide on his mental struggles before they washed him away. But his story provides a lesson to us all.

Whether they are typed on a computer or said to someone’s face, our words have consequences.

No matter how broad the shoulders that they fall on might be.