In the week leading up to his 200th AFL game, Dane Swan spoke about the pressures he experiences in life as an AFL footballer.
Whether it be the pressure to perform, playing with injuries, the scrutiny of the media, battling stereotypes; the stressors are both unique and varied. For Swan, the gossip around his lifestyle beyond the boundary is the heaviest, “If every rumour was true about me I would be dead,” he said.
Swan’s skin is tattooed but it is also thick; and most of what he hears is water off a ducks back. But it’s the feelings of his family he is most sensitive to and it’s the players who aren’t so numb to the criticism, rumour and innuendo he fears for. “I understand how some AFL footballers get depression. It can be a really horrible world for AFL footballers,” Swan said.
Mental illness isn’t just something which can impact players at the coal face; it can also become apparent when the music stops.
A week later, Barry Hall told Mike Sheahan on Open Mike of his mindset following retirement. Hall spoke of being in a rut and lacking purpose. “I had nothing to get out of bed for”, he said. “I was sleeping in, I was like a slob….looking back I can see, and it wasn’t that long ago, I was depressed.”
“I know a few players who have come out with depression issues after their footy careers and we hear about them later…I would really be surprised if there wasn’t a lot more,” Hall said.
In response to Swan’s comments chief football writer for the Herald SunMark Robinson raised the link between depression and the potential for suicide as a concern for the game.
Some might say these comments are dramatic and psychologist and AFL Players’ Association Wellbeing Services Manager Dr Jo Mitchell notes mental illness is a problem afflicting society not just AFL footballers. Dr Mitchell also says footballers are in a risk category of their own given the unique workplace they operate within.
“The reality is that one in four Australians suffer from mental illness, so yes AFL players like any other member of the community are vulnerable to mental illness,” Dr Mitchell said.
“What we also know is that mental illness commonly presents in young adult hood, so our footballers are in the right age-bracket. To go with that, the players certainly face a unique set of pressures in their jobs and the skills required to handle those pressures are often beyond what they acquire growing up.”
A handful of AFL players have spoken about their experiences with mental illness, including former Geelong player Simon Hogan, who told of his battle with depression and how he contemplated suicide during his 22-game career.
The AFL Players’ Association runs wellbeing programs for players and alumni, Dr Mitchell hopes that by providing players with skills to handle the pressures of the game, these programs will build mental fitness and assist in protecting them from mental illness later in their careers.
“Some players are amazingly resilient but others can be more vulnerable and succumb to the pressures, particularly if their career isn’t taking them where they hope it might,” Dr Mitchell said.
“By being proactive and giving the players the skills to process the obstacles they might face, and capitalise on the opportunities, we hope players will be better equipped to thrive in the AFL environment.”
Dr Mitchell believes the gladiatorial stereotypes associated with AFL footballers can be a barrier to the uptake of mental health services; however with greater education and awareness players are getting better at recognising they may have a problem and taking the steps to access help.
“What we know about help seeking behaviour in young men is they don’t do it as much as women do. That might be due to the cultural messages around guys being strong, tough and independent and the notion that struggling is weak,” she said.
“As we are seeing players express more emotion in the media, we are seeing a greater element of the human side of football. It’s less the superhero athlete and more often people are recognising that it is an indication of strength to ask for appropriate help when needed.”
Through the AFL Players’ Association wellbeing programs players are taught about the signs and symptoms of mental illness to determine if they are having more than just a bad day or week. Sadness, a lack of interest in activities they normally find enjoyable and irritability are three common ones.
This year former player Lance Picioane spoke of his inability and unwillingness to recognise he was battling depression; it was only in retirement he acknowledged he was suffering. Dr Mitchell says feedback from friends, teammates and family is critical in identifying something is amiss.
“It is really hard to identify when it is happening to you, often it might be other people’s responses that indicate that something is going on, so if you are arguing with your partner or people are having to call you on your behaviour repeatedly then these are signs that you are not your normal self and you need to talk to someone about it,” Dr Mitchell said.
“Sometimes I think players are quite good at hiding from others exactly what is going on, they will step up and perform at the club, but when they step away that’s when it falls apart.
“Everyone has bad moments or bad days, you might even string a few bad days together without any obvious cause for why you are feeling like this – that is normal. But if it’s one to two weeks you have consistently been feeling like this, then that’s when the warning bells should be going off in your head.”
The AFL Players’ Association has a network of psychologists available to past and present players. There is also support players can access through clubs and external mental health professionals but Dr Mitchell says that first conversation can simply be with a friend or family member.
“Tap into someone you trust and feel like you can speak to. They might tell you, you are ok, that’s normal and help you to realise you have a lot of stuff going on. You might have moved house, your training load might have increased or you might have an injury,” she said.
“They might be able to give you some objectivity around it or they might say you know what I think there is something more going on here, lets seek help.
“Don’t wait til it’s too late, if you are ever unsure, have the conversation or make the call.”
For more information players should contact their club or personal doctor or an AFL Players Association psychologist by calling 03-8651-4300.
Other excellent National support services include:
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14