Mental Health Players

Q&A: Mental Health and Wellbeing during COVID-19

With the COVID-19 situation continuing to evolve and a number of changes made to our everyday routines, we spoke to AFL Players’ Association Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing Brent Hedley to find out what measures have been put in place to support our members during this time and how the mental health and wellbeing team prepared for COVID-19.

As the COVID-19 situation has evolved, we’ve faced some unique challenges. What services have been available to our members during this time?

Our typical wellbeing services continue to be available to all members during this time – with consultations taking place via online platforms. We also launched our revamped Mental Health Navigation Service – which is available to all past and present players and significant others. This is an independent, confidential and player-focused service that provides access to a network of experience, Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) registered psychologists and psychiatrists. An increased focus on financial advice and hardship support is also in place.

Without breaching confidentially of course, what has the uptake been like since the COVID-19 shutdown?

To date, the uptake in our wellbeing services has been pretty consistent. The wellbeing of current male players – who have been our main focus due to the disruption to their season – have been, and continue to be, well supported through both existing club and AFLPA services. Unlike the general population, we are pleased to say (up to this particular point) we are yet to experience a significant spike in service engagement with this group during this period.

Does it give you a level of confidence in the services available to our members – past and present? How important is it being able to offer such a dynamic and wide-reaching service?

We take great confidence from our history of delivering variable services that cater for the growing and individualised needs of our 5000+ members and their significant others. The key principles of our service are independence and choice. We run all operations through a ‘consumer’ lens and that allows us to offer a wide-reaching service. Member feedback is critically important as part of this process.

In the Age, Jake Niall wrote that there was a 41 per cent rise in 2019 in members utilising the mental health and wellbeing services available to them. Why do you think this number increased so significantly?

Great question! This annual increase (while a lot of hard work) was really pleasing. The mental health and wellbeing of our members was prominent in the media and AFL industry circles 2019, due to a combination of publicised incidents, strategic initiatives and public campaigns. We conducted an Industry Review in 2018-19 that delivered a range of key recommendations and a best practice framework to optimise outcomes for players and staff. Increasing the number and workload of Club Psychologists was one such recommendation, which certainly improved AFLPA service engagement. The AFLPA’s industry-wide delivery of mental health education to players and club staff also proved to have a direct positive impact.

What are some of the mental health challenges people are facing in isolation?

In addition to existing mental health challenges, we know that isolation, and especially the absence of social connection, will cause increased levels of distress for many. For some, the removal or limitations of control and the incapacity to do the things that once gave pleasure, along with the high levels of uncertainty, will test resilience, coping strategies and possibly exacerbate pre-existing conditions

What strategies have you and your team recommended to people that are dealing with mental health challenges in isolation?

In terms of prevention/early intervention, our in-house Psychologists are promoting the concept of ‘psychological flexibility’ as a strategy to build capacity, adapt to change and help manage such situations. This includes a focus on:

  • Acceptance: Acknowledge that you wont be able to control everything. Accept that you will get frustrated or anxious at times and try to allow these emotions to come and go.
  • Openness: Open your mind to what opportunities the situation is presenting. Consider how this could be a “blessing in disguise” for you even in a small way
  • Action: Do something that will help your situation and/or help others, such as maintain social connection. Seek help or gather info. Experiment with a new approach or strategy.

For our members who require more tailored support, we encourage contacting our Mental Health Navigation Service on 1800 448 903 to talk to one of our team.

For members of the general public who require more tailored support, we encourage contacting Beyond Blue’s Coronaviris Mental Wellbeing Support Service on 1800 512 348.

How did the AFLPA Mental Health and Wellbeing team prepare for the changing COVID-19 environment?

Like most, we had to adapt our service model really fast – we have over 200 mental health providers who delivery services to our membership located all over Australia, so our priority was to engage them to support telehealth as a service modality. We also created an arrangement with an online GP service to best support the needs of our members’ partners and family members. The digitalisation of our educational programming is a current focus of our team, along with capturing longitudinal wellbeing data to inform this. Our attention in recent months has obviously also turned to supporting current male players in their return to play scenarios.

As we prepare to transition back into normal life and our routine changing again, what other challenges might people face?

The greatest challenge many may face is trying to recapture what was normal, when in fact, the world has changed. Developing a ‘new normal’, one that seems similar to the old one but has lessons learned from time spent away, will be a process for many. People will now develop new routines, new ways to be present at work and manage social connection whilst maximising their good health practices. These times may be hard on our society financially, occupationally and even recreationally, but in those challenge areas there are opportunities to shape for a better tomorrow.

What can people do to help support their transition back into work and other commitments that we had before COVID-19?

Now that work places have been forced to adapt to the COVID-19 conditions, it might be useful to take stock of the benefits that may have come from these restrictions: workplace stress, time away from family and a sense of being overworked are often cited as sources of challenge in regards to how people feel about work. Perhaps one of the best things that people can do to help with adjustment is to look at reflecting on what has been useful during this period, identify what has been useless and then have the courage to reinvent a new model of working. Flexible working hours, combination of virtual and face to face obligations, structured schedules and opportunities to connect and disconnect all play an important role in improving health. Doing a thorough self and occupational audit may help to give people a greater sense of hope for what work and life can look like going forward.

Need Support? If you know someone who requires assistance or support, please contact:

Suicide call back service: 1300 659 467

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

Emergency Response

Should you or someone you know be at risk of harm, call triple zero (000).

Support for AFLPA members: 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’s Mental Health Navigation Service at or Tel. 1800 448 903 (Mon to Fri, 9am – 5pm AEST).