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Enrique ‘Topo’ Rodriguez is considered one of the best players rugby union has known. He played 26 tests for Australia, 15 for Argentina and one for Tahiti during the 1980s. Following his retirement, it all started to unravel. Topo suffered severe depression before years later being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was a tough time in his life, and one that made him determined to help others. He has now set up the Topo Foundation for Education. Topo joins Peter Switzer on his Sky News Business Channel program SWITZER.

Topo first visited Australia in 1983 when he was touring with the Argentinean rugby team. He moved to Australia to play rugby and his rise to state and national level was quick.

“I liked the country, I liked the people, I liked the climate,” he says. “The following year I came to play here for the Warringah Rugby club and within six weeks in the country, I got selected to play for New South Wales and one week later to play for the Wallabies,” he says.

He played during the Wallabies Grand Slam Tour in 1984, as well as when the team won the Bledisloe Cup in 1986. Following this, the Wallabies played their first ever World Cup. The team didn’t do that well and Topo finished his career, going to Argentina on tour.

Emergence of bipolar disorder

“As soon as I retired, I was exhausted, sick and tired of the training, fitness, weights and all that sort of thing, so I really didn’t train for the full year, and somehow I started to feel a bit low sometimes,” he says. “Other times I was hyperactive and very energetic … so up and down ... I thought it’s just another bad scrum, I’ll have to push harder. Then I learnt there is no such things with matters of the mind.”

Seven years later, Topo was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He says bipolarity started to emerge as his fitness levels decreased. While it may be a good argument for the emergence of the disorder, it’s not conclusive, he says.

“What’s known through research and statistics is that 40 per cent of people that have bipolar is from a genetic origin or biological,” he says, adding that the onset of bipolar disorder can go from between 15 and 20 years.

Topo says he “kept changing gears, and digging deep and going hard to come out of that situation,” but it wouldn’t happen.

“And even though I went to a psychiatrist then, for the next seven years I had medication, I had therapy, but I was in complete denial, which means I didn’t want to read anything about it, I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want to tell any friends, I didn’t want to share it with anyone,” he says. “I kept it to myself. But that’s my ignorance and the stigma, which are very, very strong. They’re the same thing – ignorance and the stigma.”

The World Health Organisation reports that 20 per cent of the population has or will have some sort of mental illness.

“So there is no discrimination, and no preconditioning factors in that sense,” he says.

But Topo says alcohol, smoking and a reduced hours of sleep can also be contributing factors.

How the foundation started

A friend who Topo met through through the Black Dog Institute wrote a play about bipolar disorder, which was shown in the Seymour Theatre in June 2007. Topo says it created a lot of interest. One day while at lunch, some friends suggested that there was a need to talk about and share experiences, and that they could help people – visiting schools and talking with companies. As a result, Topo and some friends got together and set up the Topo Foundation for Education.

“What’s important for the people that are the captains of industry to understand is this: if we lose people because of their illness, we are losing their experience and we are losing their knowledge. That costs a lot of money. But we can lose the lives, which is irreparable,” he says.

He says that people can lead a fairly normal life with professional consultation and a proper plan of self management.

“You need to change your habits, your behaviour, and you need people to help you as well,” he says. “Your family and your friends need to understand what is required, so there is nothing impossible here.”

The foundation has organised four public forum events for the second half of this year. The final one is being held on 26 November at the University of New South Wales.

“The biggest lesson is that we tough blokes, there’s nothing wrong with talking and sharing and going to the doctor and getting on the front foot about it,” he says.

Watch Topo's interview in full.

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Important information:

This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Tuesday, November 24, 2009

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