This article was originally published on June 3, 2017
AFL players share the highs and lows of their careers with the world — letting us be witness to both their great acts of courage and their suffering.
We see this unfold most weekends at AFL venues across the country, but also in more private settings away from the cameras, adoring fans and the glare of social media.
In the past week, two of our members have made public their battles with mental illness, one of those has decided to retire from the game to focus on his health.
We know that players are not immune to mental illness, given it’s the No.1 health issue for men aged 15 to 25. While they’re at an age where they are in their physical prime, they are also the most vulnerable when it comes to the mental health side.
Research conducted by mental health experts tells us that incidence of mental illness among AFL footballers occurs at the same rate as the broader Australian community, with one in five experiencing an issue such as depression or anxiety.
There are both positive and negative conclusions to be drawn from this. While AFL players may not fare any worse, they do not fare any better. The benefits of being an AFL player — purpose, social connectivity, good income, and physical fitness — can be offset by stressors such as performance anxiety, media, public scrutiny and injury.
Despite their exceptional physical capacity and skill, and the status bestowed by AFL life, underneath it all they are just like the rest of us. So how do we best support our players as they make their way through their AFL careers and beyond?
Every AFL club has its own professional support networks made up of club doctors and player development and welfare managers, plus some employ their own psychologist, who typically work to cover both player performance and clinical needs.
In addition to this, the AFLPA provides an independent, confidential and national mental health service for all current and past players. This external network of mental health practitioners, identified as specialists in their respective fields, work with players away from the club environment.
The nature of these consultations range in response to the specific needs of the player. It’s common practice for players to work with these practitioners in a vast range of areas, such as mindfulness for performance, relationship counselling and depressive illness.
While the professional support services are there for players, they are not always ready or willing to make use of them. The stigma associated with mental illness, a lack of understanding or concern about how it will impact team selection and future contracts can hold players back from seeking professional help.
While there are systems of support in place, we need a collective approach to remove the barriers to players making the most of them. That Alex Fasolo felt comfortable to be upfront about his battle with mental illness shows how far society has come, but some of the commentary post his announcement shows there’s more work to do.
Our recent digital campaign, Better Out Than In, was launched to help reframe the perception of men’s depression from one of shame, stigma, and secrecy to one of openness, acceptance, and hope by sharing the personal stories of AFL footballers. Community campaigns like this also help bridge the gap and build people’s confidence and skills to start life-changing conversations.
The AFLPA also runs a series of workshops that introduce players to evidence-based and practical ways to enhance their wellbeing and resilience through mindfulness techniques and ways to identify their life values and strengths, maintain relationships, and implement daily mental fitness routines.
These skills are essential for the health and wellbeing of athletes but also for managing the transition out of elite sport. Through the MAX360 model, players are encouraged to maximise the opportunities available to them in a range of areas from wellbeing and resilience to finance, career development and further education to ensure they build the life skills to operate in the world post-football.
Good mental health, wellbeing and resilience are essential for performance on the field and in life. AFL players spend a large amount of time on their physical fitness, but it’s just as important to spend time on their mental fitness. Investing in and managing the mechanics of your mind will pay big dividends now and in the future.
If you know someone who requires urgent assistance or support, please contact:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
Mensline Australia: 1300 78 99 78
Support for AFL Players: If you are a current or past AFL Player and would like to know more about our specialised wellbeing and mental health services please contact the AFL Players’ Association at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tel. 03-8651 4300 (Mon to Fri, 9am — 5pm).