It feels like yesterday that I was dreading the drive to the Essendon Football Club.
The place that had been my workplace for close to a decade was in turmoil at the height of the supplements saga that we all now know so much about.
In 2013, things started changing. The media were camped outside of the club throughout the majority of the season.
The continuous barrage of questions and the fear of getting something wrong or saying something you’re not supposed to led to an anxious walk to into the club each day.
During the year, the continual stress of rocking up to cameras and inquiries about things we were all still grappling with wasn’t ideal for my mental health.
The only relief would be actually getting onto the ground and training or playing with my teammates.
This continued for two and a half years. Initially, I’d say it didn’t affect my life away from the club but after speaking to my wife she said I was actually pretty grumpy more often than not, stressed and perhaps not as attentive as I usually was.
I was struggling while thinking I was going along as normal. It wasn’t until she told me I was stressed which made me realise how it was affecting me and those around me negatively.
That was the start of it. We had to get briefed if we were going to say anything. Thoughts of, ‘How am I going to handle this? What if I’m thrown a curveball and how can I answer?” That would begin during the drive into the club. Not knowing what to do in those situations was hard to deal with.
It was overwhelming. Combine that with the regular scrutiny of playing elite football and trying to perform each week and it all became a bit too much.
Because football is a game filled with scrutiny and criticism, that period was when I realised that having some sort of support outside of football for my mental health was important.
In late 2015, we had a team meeting and some general conversations started where a few teammates opened up about their troubles and I remember one player saying he got help outside of footy.
That was the turning point for me. Hearing a colleague — who is a teammate and a friend — say that really broke down that superman persona that AFL players have and I thought if they’re getting help, maybe it will help me. Seeing it work for them was the catalyst for me deciding to get some help.
I went through the AFLPA and their services led me to someone outside of the footy club, which I think was important. They are impartial to the cut and thrust of what’s going on at the Essendon Football Club or the AFL in general.
I met a professional and immediately noticed a difference.
I was given a few techniques to handle certain scenarios and things to constantly work on in my day-to-day life. I think it helps in regards to being a footballer but more in my ability to function and thrive in general life.
I never thought I needed professional help because I’m an AFL player, but mental health isn’t black or white. It’s like a continuum and I had slid into the lower half. Some people suffer worse than others but it was beneficial for me to learn more about my emotional reactions to certain situations so I can thrive each day.
I started by seeing a professional once every couple of weeks, which it still is to this day. It’s a regular visit because you’re never 100 per cent on top of your mental health issues.
I’m entering another challenging phase in that I’m transitioning out of the game. I’ve been fortunate enough to play footy for 12 years so these appointments will be important during this stressful time to keep my mental health in check.
The mental health space in professional sport — particularly Australian Rules — has come a long way since I began playing in 2005 but it needed to because the pressures of the game are only getting larger.
Public and media scrutiny has been enhanced through social media and the continual coverage of the game. Playing in the AFL is a highly demanding job and one we have little control over which makes support networks all the more important for longevity and mental health while in the game.
But there are more avenues to get help now. Resources are at an all-time high and services are readily available.
It’s important to preach the message to other players that seeking help is normal. And while it’s sad to see guys like Lance Franklin, Tom Boyd and Alex Fasolo take time away from the game due to mental health issues, it’s great they feel comfortable enough to announce their struggles publicly — that’s a sign of real strength.
Because, as young men, we can be a bit stubborn at times but we’re all human beings playing a difficult game.
The stigma is being broken down steadily and there’s been improvement which is important for the game but let’s not become complacent.
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