FORMER premiership star Wayne Schwass believes the AFL has reached a critical juncture in how it treats players with mental health issues.
The former Kangaroo and Swan, who has been an advocate for mental health after announcing his own battle with depression on retirement, said increasing awareness of the issue was important.
Speaking after Melbourne forward Mitch Clark announced his retirement aged 26 as a result of clinical depression, Schwass said administrators and clubs needed to divert sufficient resources to help address problems with players.
“Once upon a time, some people in the game made a really courageous decision to tackle racism, which is complex and sensitive and it’s really difficult and challenging, but look at where racism sits within our game now. It’s not tolerated and that’s through education.
“That’s the same situation we find ourselves in now with mental health and I just urge that those in charge now do whatever we can to educate and make sure that our players, coaches and administrators and, equally importantly, our supporters, understand that as a code we’re doing our utmost to make sure we support people.”
The plight of Clark drew sympathy from players, coaches and officials. Although he is the second player in a month to walk away from the game prematurely — young Hawk Dayle Garlett quit in March citing an inability to cope with the demands of AFL football — few believe mental health issues in the code are on the rise.
Rather, they believe there is greater awareness of the issue. Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley, whose club assisted Heritier Lumumba (formerly Harry O’Brien) during a difficult time for the defender last year, said it was not simply footballers who needed assistance.
“It is a human problem. It is not a sports problem,” he said. “We are very conscious of the environment we provide our players with internally, (of) the welfare and support of our players and staff at all times. Mental health is a part of that. Feeling valued as a human being is paramount to it.
“It can make it tough at times, in this environment, for individuals to survive, to thrive, just to get by.”
In recent weeks, former Hawk and Kangaroo Lance Picioane detailed his struggles with depression during and after his career and the impact it had on his life. On Twitter, he said it was time for those in authority to tackle mental illness properly.
Essendon coach Mark Thompson said the scrutiny players faced exacerbated the problem. “It’s not just in footy, but I suppose this industry does get heavily scrutinised and it can be quite a difficult game to play,” he told 3AW. “There’s a lot of negative feedback in our industry, so you have to be able to cope with that side of it.”
Nathan Thompson, the former Hawk and Kangaroos spearhead, said Clark had taken a step in the right direction by making his plight public.
“I opened up my cupboard bare and bared my soul to everyone, a lot of honest conversations, to try and actually find out what was going on, find the right people to help me out, and get my life back on track,” he told SEN Radio.
“It was actually a lot of things coming together that actually helped me get back on my feet and part of that was actually sharing what was going on with family and friends, and those around me, and allowing other people into my life to help me.”
This article first appeared on The Australian on 10 April, 2014.