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Feature

Dr Jodi Richardson

THE NEW BLACK: Footballer turned author Heath Black.

R E T S N O M THE E G A C E H T IN

Depression and anxiety is an enormous problem for elite footballers, which the AFLPA is doing its utmost to tackle.

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MAGINE for a moment that every day you go to work to do something you’ve always loved, you know that your career could end – with no chance of re-employment – due to circumstances completely out of your control. Picture then, that every week you have to perform under the scrutiny of thousands of shareholders who are right there watching you work, while millions more are watching remotely. What about if every week your performance was reviewed on the news, and even the local butcher had a thing or two to share about how you and your workmates could achieve more? Combine all of this with the very real possibility that at the end of each year you could be “let go” or relocated to the other side of the country. This is reality for an AFL footballer. It might not sound so glamorous when you put the job like that. For so many young footballers, the idea of playing for an AFL club is a dream. The notion of playing the game they love at the highest level and having a professional career is very exciting. I expect that aspiring young players would consider the appeal of the football, the acclaim and the money to be part of an amazing lifestyle.

What they – and the public at large – probably don’t consider is that this “amazing lifestyle” also comes with a great deal of stress and challenge for which most young men are unprepared. AFL players have had access to psychological services for years, but while these services are excellent when problems arise, preventive measures are required help players to cope with problems and reduce the likelihood of adverse long-term psychological effects. Matti Clements, the AFL Players Association’s wellbeing services manager, in conjunction with Brendan Pawsey from HealthMaps, has devised the “Playwell program” to build resilience in footballers and help them to develop healthy coping strategies to deal with the job’s stresses. The AFLPA identified that many past players needed ongoing therapy for relationship problems, anxiety, depression, drug use, gambling and even self-harm behaviour. The outcomes of the program are being monitored so that over time it will hopefully be evident that players come through “the system” with the skills and planning to enter life after football with better mental health than many of their older counterparts.

The stresses on players are many and varied. Clements explains: “Players may experience stress when they have a longterm injury (four weeks or more out of full training), relocation, relationship stress due to the time-demands placed on players that are outside the normal nine to five of most jobs. “Players can have difficulties not being able to ‘switch off ’ too, often because of public interest.” The Playwell program helps players to identify that these stressors and others such as contract renewal and getting a game are all understandable and part of the job, and affect many of their peers. The program is implemented in a player’s first year with an AFL club in an effort to teach them the language to talk through difficulties, stress management, decision making and problem solving. “We can’t change the interest that the general public has in AFL, it goes with the job, and can be a very good thing, but rather we discuss how players can unwind and cope with the stress in healthy ways,” Clements explains. Integral to the program is the concept of the “live well wheel” which teaches players that football is just one part of life and that home and health are essential Inside Football

considerations for a balanced, happy and fulfilling life, especially beyond football. The program is implemented by past players and involves rookie players and their mentors sitting down for four sessions in the first year and two booster sessions the following year. As personal issues are discussed, each group vows that nothing discussed is repeated outside of the group, giving players the security to be honest and gain the most they can from each session. The emphasis of the sessions is on identifying stress and its causes, monitoring, experiencing and responding to stress. Decision making and goal setting are also important parts of the program. Clements reports that players are most comfortable talking with family, friends, teammates and other support staff, and that they are least comfortable discussing problems with their coach, psychologist or doctor. Nonetheless, 43 per cent of players sought help from a mental health professional in 2011. “I believe that players are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of seeing a psychologist and see it more as an enhancement service rather than a deficit service (one you access when things are really bad),” says Clements. “They are seeking support and skill development toX help manage stress and

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

PROFILE: Nathan Thompson.

how to have healthy relationships. We should be applauding the players for accessing our nonmandated service.” Former Dockers and Saints wingman Heath Black is a proud advocate for – not to mention extremely thankful for – the services provided by the AFLPA. With some of the experiences he describes as a result of undiagnosed bipolar II disorder and adult ADHD, he is lucky to be alive. Black experienced episodes of rage where he seemingly wasn’t in conscious control of his actions. In his book Black, to be released early next year, he describes anxiety so crippling on one occasion that he was bed-ridden with constant diarrhea. Having been through some of the most difficult, frightening and challenging


Inside the game 11 times a person can endure, Black is passionate about helping other men who may suffer from bipolar or other related mental conditions such as depression, anxiety and alcoholism. At the age of 22 when playing for St Kilda, Black knew that he was different but didn’t seek help. “I was a typical male,” he said. “The perception of an AFL footballer is that he is mentally and physically strong. That wasn’t the case for me; inside I was a marshmallow and I didn’t confide in anyone until I was 28, but by then it was far too late.” Black explains that within an AFL playing group there is still a perception among many players that they have to hold things in. He believes that things are getting better in that regard, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. “We fly the flag on the field, we really stick up for our mates; we’ve actually got to do this off the field from a men’s health perspective,” he said. Black encourages players to confide in each other first, and says that players should give their teammates the opportunity to share what’s really going on with them by asking with sincerity, “how are you going?” He says that players need to be prepared to listen and, if needs be, encourage their teammate to seek help or, if the situation warrants it, seek help for the player through the team doctor, psychologist or through the AFLPA. Much of the hesitation of players to seek help is their concern about their position in the team. “Players are under pressure to prove to their coaches and other coaching staff that they are fit to play at the elite level,” says Black. “For a lot of guys the AFLPA is the best option for help as they are not under the club umbrella and the club is not notified that help is being sought.” In his book, Black describes how he hit rock bottom before he began to take control of his life and get the help he needed. The perception about him as a person was a product of what the public could see of him in the media, and the perception wasn’t good. Bipolar disorder involves periods of feeling low (depressed) and high (mania) and the type II disorder is a more severe illness than type I. Black experienced symptoms of anger, increased risk-taking behavior and increased alcohol use, to name a few. He describes AFL as being a natural medication for him and it was not until he retired that “the monster was really let out of the cage”. Gratefully, Black explains that when he did share his struggles with mental illness, things changed. “People read about me in the press and they think I’m a thug and an alcoholic,” he said. “I would get heckled by people who were aggressive themselves. “Since coming out and actually talking about my mental illness, people come up to me and say I’m looking really well and to keep up the good work; the perception of the public has really changed, and now people warm to me and ask for my help.” These views are echoed by Nathan Thompson, who has remarked how

surprised he was by the extent of are going through, the quicker they Heath Black is hoping that other support extended to him when the admit to it and seek help either from players will learn from what he has public learned about him having to the club or AFLPA, the more quickly been through. confront his depression after years of their health, and inevitably their His book, a raw account of his bottling it up. career, will get back on track. experiences, now needs another Anxiety and depression are the “There is no doubt that a lot of chapter as more of his story is revealed. number one reason that present and players still believe that if they own He has only recently been diagnosed past players seek therapy. up to a health issue, a financial issue, a with adult ADHD, which was detected Present players see a psychologist relationship issue, that will go against through brain imaging. an average of five sessions, while past their potential selection,” Kennett said. Now on Ritalin, and having also players seek ongoing therapy for an “I think that attitude now is an recently had his bipolar medication average of nine sessions, emphasising outdated attitude and I would altered, he is feeling the best he has the importance of the Playwell encourage players to seek assistance since he was a child. program. as soon as any of those issues become The way he feels now is a product Though these are terms almost apparent, or whenever they feel after of a strict diet and exercise program everyone is familiar with, unless three or four weeks that they are off that Black describes as being twice you have experienced anxiety colour, not performing well or getting as hard a regimen as when he was or depression, it is very hard to terribly anxious or stressed. playing football. understand what it means to suffer “It is not a crime to seek help. The good news is that he through either. “If they broke their arm, they would married a very supportive partner We all experience anxiety at one time seek help immediately.” and is looking forward to living or another, but it is usually temporary Kennett explains that at this time of in Melbourne and continuing his and in relation to a stressful event – the year, some players are caused great work with AFL players so that they such as giving the best man speech at anxiety as they face their fears of being can benefit from his experiences. a wedding or sitting an exam. delisted. This may result in clinical n OUT SOON: The Many AFL players who are seeking depression for some. n To pre-order Heath Black’s book, Heath Black story. help have ongoing anxiety which “I would strongly recommend you can visit his website: www. brings with it feelings of fear, worry players seek help. The most important heathblack.com.au. and dread, often without any particular thing we have is the quality of our stressful event being a trigger, or after a stressful event has long since passed. Symptoms of anxiety include feeling on edge, worrying constantly, feeling tired all the time, having difficulty concentrating and difficulty sleeping. You can see how seriously this condition can affect an AFL player’s ability to train and play with peak performance. If training and performance are affected, this just feeds the anxiety as the player worries more and more about his position in the team. Depression for players is equally as devastating. It is diagnosed when the player is experiencing a persistently low mood, own health and you don’t want to put often without reason. that at risk by not being prepared to Depression can make it very hard consult professionals.” just to climb out of bed, it can slow The AFLPA Playwell program will thoughts and actions, cause fatigue, go a long way to enabling players to increase alcohol and drug use, and can identify within themselves and each result in a loss of interest in activities other the signs and symptoms of that were once considered enjoyable. mental illness. Chairman of beyondblue and former With the language to discuss it Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett and the acceptance that comes with talked about the biggest cause of stress understanding mental illness plus for AFL players. the coping strategies to ward “The greatest pressure is that of against it, over time we hope to expectation,” Kennett said. see fewer players experiencing “The expectation of performing to a psychological problems that level that will see them selected on a will inevitably impact on their regular basis for the senior team. football and family life. “That expectation is their own and An important message the expectation that comes with trying for players is that their to please their parents and friends. motivation, concentration “It also comes with the expectation and form will only that if selected, they will be on a career benefit from addressing path that for a period of time there will any problems they may be no comparison with anything else.” be facing. Kennett explains that what is It can all be done difficult for players to realise is that confidentially, so why when they are experiencing anxiety put it off? that they don’t understand, when they are performing differently, their eating habits might change, they might be sleeping less or questioning their own self-worth over a period of weeks, all of those could be signs of an early depressive illness. It is important for players to know that BLACK:: Football was “a natural medication”. INSET: Jeff Kennett, who says players are overcoming outdated attitudes, whatever it is that they

‘Inside I was a marshmallow and I didn’t confide in anyone until I was 28, but by then it was far too late.’

– HEATH BLACK

Inside Football

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Monster in the cage