This Q&A has been put together to assist high school and university students with coursework. Answers should be attributed to AFL Players’ Association Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing, Brent Hedley.
What do you believe are the most common reasons for the mental health issues present in the elite footballers?
Every person has a unique combination of past experiences and present stressors that can lead to mental health issues, however, common stressors within the AFL playing cohort include performance anxiety, career transition, media and public scrutiny, injury and being away from family or culture.
It is also acknowledged that the public interest in AFL players can, in cases, bring light to broader community conversations concerning mental health. In many ways however, the variance in AFL players understanding and awareness of mental health mirrors what we understand to exist within the broader community – there is still work to do to ensure everyone has a good understanding about what mental health is, how to monitor it, and how to maintain positive mental health and manage mental health issues
Do you believe these reasons for mental illness in elite football players are the same as those faced by the wider society?
Research conducted by mental health experts has told a consistent story – that AFL players fare the same as their as their non-playing peers in terms of mental illness and wellbeing. The interpretation of this fact can be explained in a number of ways.
- While AFL players may not fare any worse, they do not fare any better. AFL players are as susceptible to mental illness as the broader Australian community, where 1 in 5 experience a mental health issue such as depression and anxiety.
- The benefits of being an AFL player, such as purpose, social connectedness, and regular physical activity, seem to balance out the unique stressors: constant judgement about performance, media and public scrutiny and injury. Despite their exceptional physical capacity and skill, and the status bestowed by AFL life, it appears that underneath it all elite athletes are no different to anyone else in society.
Do you believe the AFL provides enough help for athletes in terms of mental health?
The AFL industry, including the AFLPA, AFL and clubs commits significant investment to both structures and resources to support player wellbeing, and continuously measures the effectiveness of this investment in fine detail. In light of the global health predictions and expansion of the AFL Industry (eg. introduction of AFLW) , it is clear that this investment must continue to build to best support both the AFL industry and the elite athletes within it.
Are the clubs or the association, or both responsible for providing mental help for the athletes?
The AFL Players’ Association works closely with clubs to provide support to AFL players in the key areas of services, programs and advocacy. Wellbeing support is considered a dual responsibility of both clubs and the AFLPA, supported by the AFL.
In reference to service, the AFLPA provides past and present players with an independent, confidential and national mental health service for all current and past players and their significant others. Players can access this service directly via the AFLPA or through club staff and indirect referral channels.
This external network of mental health practitioners consists of qualified and experienced specialists in their respective fields who conduct sessions away from the club environment. So, while there are systems of support in place, we need a collective approach to help people make the most of them.
We are committed to investing in the ongoing development of our resources and championing our industry to drive increased awareness and understanding of mental health.
Is there a general piece of advice you give to struggling athletes?
Without commenting in specific terms or cases, the AFLPA promotes that fact that good mental health, wellbeing and resilience is essential for sustained performance on the field and in life. AFL players spend a large amount of time on their physical fitness, and at AFL Players’ Association we advocate that players spend time on their mental fitness. Investing in and managing the mechanics of your mind is proven to pay big dividends both in the now and in the future.
What strategies do AFLPA employ to monitor the wellbeing of member athletes?
The AFLPA, via its various in-house teams, works closely with clubs, player agents and family members to ensure the wellbeing of its members, male and female present and past players, is prioritised.
The AFLPA’s Mental Health and Wellbeing team, which consists of in-house mental health specialists and project members, adopts a proactive approach in their delivery of specific wellbeing services. These services are supported by promotions, campaigns and educational initiatives which all aim to increase the awareness and understanding of mental health within both our membership and the broader community.
A key pillar of the AFLPA’s wellbeing services is the National Psychologist Network, a free and independent service available to all current and past players. This network is coordinated by the AFLPA and currently features almost 100 of Australia’s expert mental health specialists, who work with our members nation-wide.
In addition, the AFLPA’s Mental Health and Wellbeing team conducts proactive wellbeing workshops and sessions with players which touch on a range of key wellbeing topics such as mindfulness, resilience, managing emotions and values.
Most important, the AFLPA solicits feedback from members who engage with our services to ensure that we can continue to ensure we meet and exceed their mental health needs and expectations.
What impact does social media have on players’ health and wellbeing?
Social media has been raised as a contributing factor to mental illness, but the reality is that it’s just one of many potential causes. Everyone’s struggles are unique and the range of factors at play are often complex.
Social media can be a confronting environment for players and cause significant stress, but it can also be one that gives players a chance to express themselves and show their human side. It also provides connection to friends and family – something of high importance for players who move far away from home to pursue their AFL careers.
As a young person playing professional sports, there’s so many restrictions on them that can be isolating from their peers, but social media is a good way to remain connected. The threat that social media poses highlights the importance of players having a strong non-athletic identity that they can lean on if their football is causing stress
How have the perceptions of mental illness changed within the football industry?
The understanding of mental health issues has definitely improved in recent years. Players are feeling more comfortable to speak up when they feel as though they’re struggling and clubs are more understanding in giving players time away from the game to deal with such issues.
The AFL industry believes in the importance of its players being open to support and supporting help-seeking behaviours, while promoting the fact that there are effective treatments available for presenting issues. As an example of this approach to influencing industry attitudes to mental health, the AFLPA commenced a Mental Health Education program for club staff and players in 2017, with very positive results to date.
What impact on the community does an AFL player sharing his story of mental illness have?
The impact that an AFL player can have on the community is quite significant. AFL players have traditionally had a reputation of being “tough” and by seeing these players express that they experience mental health issues, it demonstrates to the community that mental illness doesn’t discriminate and that it’s okay to speak up if you’re struggling, not feeling yourself or need help.
Evidence of this is the Better Out Than In campaign that the AFLPA conducted in 2016. Several members of the community got in touch to say thank you as the campaign demonstrated to them that it’s okay to speak up if you need help – if former AFL players are doing it than anyone can.
What have your experiences with past players told you about mental illness?
Research with our past player group shows that many players have struggled with their transition out of the AFL system which has contributed to mental health issues. However, the most recent CBA sought to address this issue through a significant investment in this cohort to assist with transition, injury and hardship support following their football careers. All past player AFLPA members also all have access to the AFLPA National Psychologist Network – a free and confidential service.
A leave of absence from a football club can be a very public process – does this put more pressure on the players?
While taking a leave of absence from an AFL club can be very public, it is often what players need in order to deal with a mental health issue they are struggling with.
As the AFL industry is becoming more educated and mature about mental health, players taking leave for mental health purposes is becoming more common and less of a media story, meaning less pressure on the players who choose to do so.
What is AFL Players’ Association doing?
AFL Players’ Association has a specialised in-house mental health and wellbeing team who are supported by our national network of leading mental health clinicians and wellbeing practitioners.
Our team is committed to investing in mental health and wellbeing science and practice to enhance the lives of current and past players, on and off the field. Our services are tailored to meet the needs of our past and present AFL Players, with an emphasis on building good mental health, wellbeing and performance in life.
The AFLPA’s National Psychology Network consists of a diverse range of qualified, registered and experienced psychologists who are available to work one-on-one with players, away from the club environment. This network is an independent, confidential, player-focused service, provided at no direct cost to current and past players and their significant others.
Our player-facing services are complimented by our range of wellbeing promotion and advocacy initiatives. These include a range of community projects, public campaigns, industry backed programs and workshops and targeted research activities.
Our wellbeing promotion approach includes workshops, campaigns and projects, with the focus on collectively building player wellbeing, resilience, and performance as people.
Wellbeing promotion is about maximizing the potential of players during their AFL careers and beyond. Wellbeing promotion activities are informed by the latest mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural approaches and positive psychology.
To ensure a minimum standard of psychological and wellbeing services across the industry, the AFL Players’ Association provides a series of wellbeing workshops to help players’ manage stress, build resilience and enhance life performance. Topics include understanding stress, managing thoughts and emotions, mindfulness, personal strengths and wellbeing.
Implementing strategies to increase wellbeing isn’t just about playing better footy; the benefits extend to every aspect of life and are enjoyed long after hanging up the boots. Time outside of footy is a perfect place to start working on your wellbeing; one way is to find an activity that plays to your strengths and gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, which the PA encourages.
Key take home messages on mental health:
- Players experience mental health issues, and have great support systems built on best practice available to them.it’s incumbent on all stakeholders in the industry to create an environment where people feel comfortable seeking help
- Given the environment we are trying to create, the resources available to players and the experts working in this space, it’s likely that players are being supported earlier than they would otherwise
- We want to re-frame the conversation about mental illness from one of shame, stigma, and secrecy to one of openness, acceptance, and hope
- We also want to be proactive by helping players to build resilience and coping mechanisms to help them maintain their wellbeing.