AFL takes lead on mental health issues in positive if long overdue move

Jack Steven

 Jack Steven told his St Kilda teammates in February he would take time away from the game to deal with mental health issues. Photograph: Jonathan DiMaggio/AFL Photos/via Getty Images

In 2016, Tom Boyd wrote his name into the folklore of the Western Bulldogs when he helped bring the AFL premiership cup to Whitten Oval. His fourth-quarter goal from outside the 50m arc is now the stuff of legend. Less than three years later, a 23-year-old Boyd would retire from the game, citing struggles with his mental health as a key reason.

“My decision to retire now is a reflection of issues I’ve had over the past five years both with physical injury and with mental health, and they have now accumulated to a point where I just don’t have the desire to play or the enjoyment of the game I used to have,” Boyd said at the time.

Twenty years before Boyd climbed the dais at the MCG a premiership star, Wayne Schwass did the same for North Melbourne in the Kangaroos’ similarly drought-breaking flag. Earlier this year, Schwass gave evidence at the Victorian royal commission into the mental health system, describing a heartbreaking 12 years of “lying, hiding and pretending”. Schwass told the commission that he used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, that he had “trained to be a good athlete – [but] wasn’t trained to be balanced individual”.

In February, St Kilda’s Jack Steven told his teammates he would be taking time away from the game to deal with his own mental health issues. Steven joined a growing list of AFL men’s players revealing their struggles with issues like anxiety and depression. It’s a conversation that was once avoided, an issue brushed under the carpet, a struggle with a suggested treatment of toughening up.

But after decades of silence, hushed conversations and careers quietly ended before their time, the AFL has pushed the mental health and wellbeing of players to the foreground in a positive move for the competition. This week the league announced the appointments of Dr Kate Hall as the AFL’s head of mental health and Dr Ranjit Menon as chief psychiatrist.

CEO Gil McLachlan said the mental health and wellbeing of everyone involved in the game was a key focus and that the appointment of the doctors would transform the way the industry responded to the mental health challenges of its community.

“We know it is one of the biggest issues facing the industry and these appointments ensure we have prioritised the wellbeing of players, umpires, coaches and football administration staff,” he said. It is a long overdue move, and one that sits alongside a trio of documentaries that underscore the intense pressure of the elite sporting environment.

Next week, Collingwood: From the Inside Out will premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The documentary follows the Magpies throughout the 2018 season. What it reveals, however, is far more than the inner workings of one of the country’s biggest sporting clubs. Adam Treloar gave filmmakers Marcus Cobbledick and Josh Cable unprecedented access, unflinchingly describing his battles with anxiety.

Two recent documentaries about the racism retired Swan Adam Goodes was subjected to, The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream, lay bare the all too often cruel impact of the intense pressure of the AFL environment. The dual Brownlow medallist and premiership player was forced to take time away from the game after the spotlight placed on him for daring to point out the darker elements of the code and the country simply became too much. Goodes eventually walked away from the game.

On AFL 360 this week, Treloar spoke about Collingwood: From the Inside Out and his willingness to share his experiences. “You deal with so much, we deal with anxiety on performance, expectation on performance, people ridiculing you,” he said. “I think it’s important that people outside of footy understand that we are human beings.”

But the AFL fishbowl is a small one. The pressure to perform is immense and the glare of the media and fans can be harsh. Social media adds yet another dimension with “fans” quick to vent their frustration, however inappropriate. The expectations heaped on players by themselves, their clubs, the media and fans alongside injuries that push players to the sidelines for months at a time and a national draft where young men move interstate and away from the support networks provided by friends and family create a heady and often destructive combination.

As the biggest sporting organisation in the country, the AFL has a responsibility to take the lead on an issue that is far more significant than any game of football. They have a responsibility to the young men, and women, on whose skill they thrive. And, equally as important, what happens at the elite level can have a positive impact at the grassroots. Sport can and should be a driver for social change. In this instance, the AFL’s decision to actively steer their code in a healthier direction is one that should be applauded.