Going public, or private, on mental health in the AFL

Let’s say a player at an AFL club has a mental health issue. He, or now she, may be struggling with depression, or clinical levels of anxiety, or even one of the more complex conditions recognised in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

They go to see the club psychologist, and talk things over with the coach and footy manager. It’s agreed some time out of the game is required, just as effectively as if the player was physically injured.

The club and player concerned then face a difficult decision. Should they go public, as Alex Fasolo, Tom Boyd, Lance Franklin and (going back further) Mitch Clark and Nathan Thompson have all done?

In Franklin’s case, he may hardly have had a choice: his enormous profile meant that any absence from the game leading up to the 2015 finals was always going to be heavily scrutinised and would require a public explanation.

Most of us, in less public lines of work, don’t face that question. If we’re lucky, we may have access to stress or sick leave, and we go home to fight our battles privately, hopefully with the support of family and close friends.

Let’s now say a player wants to take this latter option: to keep his or her struggle under wraps, after making the decision that going public will only exacerbate the stress and pressure they’re already under.

The club, of course, supports the player’s decision and does its best to honour it – knowing, at the same time, that the media will ask questions, that club forums and social media will be chattering about his or her absence, and that the industry leaks like a sieve.

“You’re trying to balance player confidentiality versus public expectation of wanting to know what’s happening,” says a football manager at a club in exactly this situation [not identified to protect the  player’s privacy].

“Our overarching aim at all times is what’s in the best interests of the player, so we’ll always revert to that, but the system both within how we report player injuries and actual media interest in it sometimes makes that a difficult situation to navigate.”

Going public with a mental health problem is often rightly lauded for its courage, especially in the context of competitive sport. They remind us that our sporting heroes are as vulnerable and have as many human frailties as the rest of us.

“We know that a lot of people who have mental health issues aren’t getting treatment, for a start, and certainly young men would be in that category, not just footballers,” says the same club’s head psychologist.

“We know that’s the case, so helping them, broadly speaking, and helping players and young coaches know more about these things is absolutely a good thing, there’s no question about that.”

But while removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues is a worthwhile aim, not all heroes wear capes, or want to be poster boys or girls for a cause. Doing so only adds another layer of scrutiny in a hyper-scrutinised environment.

“There may be a necessity to keep things pretty private, because the recovery process and helping people get back on their feet from some of the challenges they’re experiencing is a sensitive issue and can take time,” says the psychologist.

“It depends on the individual as to how they actually deal with those things. We want their hands to be on the steering wheel, in terms of who needs to know and how they would like to proceed.”

Brent Hedley, the AFL Players’ Association’s head of mental health and wellbeing, agrees that keeping health issues private is a challenge.

“The simple fact is that players’ lives are now more public than ever, and it’s becoming really hard for players to keep things in the background [with] the level of surveillance that occurs through media and the public.

“We’ve obviously witnessed a recent growth in the number of players that have spoken publicly. And while that’s really heartening, and it supports the de-stigmatisation of mental health [issues], we want to stress is that player consent in that process is paramount.”

Both Hedley and the football manager agree that it becomes more difficult when mental health issues intersect with poor on-field performance and, especially, erratic or anti-social off-field behaviour.

Of course, few young workers are as heavily psychologically profiled as elite athletes entering the world of professional sport. Long before prospective players begin their careers, the AFL actively seeks to weed out those unsuited to its particular rigours.

“There’s standard psychometric and psychological testing that the AFL does for all potential draftees, and all that information’s accessible to all of the AFL clubs,” the football manager says.

“We have our own sports psychologists who we engage specifically around the recruitment process, and their job is not necessarily to find reasons not to draft particular players, but to make sure that we have a complete picture to make sure we can give them every opportunity once they do come in.”

Whatever screening a player goes through before being drafted, clubs also need to be aware that mental health issues don’t discriminate and can affect a person at any time.

According to Beyond Blue, one in eight men will experience depression in their lifetime, one in five will experience clinical anxiety, and one in seven will experience both in the space of a single year. And evidence suggests men are less likely to seek help than women.

But, Hedley says, that increasing awareness means that the response to players who do open up about their struggles – whether it’s just to their teammates and club, or the broader public – is increasingly supportive.

“What we do witness time and time again is an overwhelmingly positive public and industry response. There’s a really strong thread of care and compassion,” he says.

“There’s no coincidence that more players are opening up, for that very reason.”

The point is that players need to know not only that they can ask for support, but that they can dictate the sort of support they want and need – hopefully with the cooperation of the media and understanding of fans.

“Ultimately the player needs to drive it,” says the club football manager.

“Like, OK, here are the options in front of me; I’d like to go down this path, and I understand that if I go down that path, then these are the potential consequences.

“And one of them may be that if it’s out in the public, that some people are going to make judgments, that there might be some embarrassment or commentary on it or whatever it might be.

“So the player needs to understand the implications of each option, and it has to be [their] choice, so [they’re] making that choice not under any pressure, but with strong support.”

Lifeline 131 114 or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636

First published in The Age, 19 April 2019

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