Mental Health Stigma Breaking in the AFL

In March, the AFL Players’ Association launched the Injury & Hardship Fund. The fund is an integral piece of framework to not only provide financial assistance to past and future players’ surgeries, but also helping those experiencing mental hardship.


Last month, Dayne Beams stepped down as captain of the Brisbane Lions. When Beams was appointed skipper of the Lions in February 2017, the midfielder said he was “deeply honoured.” So how can someone that is privileged in holding such a position relinquish it after only holding it for a year?

The story begins back in 2014, when Beams’ father, Philip Beams, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Beams, at the time a star player for Collingwood, requested to be traded back to his home state in Queensland to be closer to his ailing father.

In March this year, Beams’ father passed away. Just days later, the 28-year-old faced up to his Lions teammates to show the young side that it’s okay to speak about personal issues and mental health.

In a statement to the Courier Mail, Beams said “I really feel that it is really good for younger players to see that someone senior, like the leader of their group, is vulnerable.”

“I think it is a really powerful thing for them to feel safe and express their feelings and maybe how they are feeling… As males, sometimes it is hard for us to express ourselves and I feel that me being me, and expressing those emotions that I have has really, I won’t say helped the group, but allowed them to step back and think more about life. And I’ve had a few of the blokes say that to me.’’

But it wasn’t the last of Beams speaking out about his mental health issues following his father’s death. Following the announcement that he was stepping down as captain, Beams held a press conference to discuss the reasons for surrendering the position.

Beams’ honesty regarding his battles continues the healthy trend in the AFL of players being open with their mental health issues. Since former player Mitch Clark momentarily retired from the AFL in 2014 due to clinical depression, numerous players have acted on their individual issues.

Western Bulldogs’ Tom Boyd took leave from the AFL as a result of clinical depression, mere months after steering the Bulldogs to premiership glory. The former number one draft pick was among many players to take a time-out from the demands of AFL football to deal with mental health problems last year.

But there’s no denying a stigma still surrounds mental health, not only in the AFL, but Australia as a whole.

Figures provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) suggest that one in five (20%) Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any given year. Obviously, AFL players are aged between 18-35, which may skew the data. However, there are only five known current players that have taken time out, from the competition to deal with a mental illness.

Along with Beams and Boyd, Collingwood’s Alex Fasolo, Essendon’s Aaron Francis and Sydney’s Lance Franklin have either taken leave due to mental illness or made it public knowledge that they’re dealing with mental health issues.

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Lance Franklin of the Sydney Swans.

Five players out of 708 in the entire AFL competition. That equates to 0.7% of AFL players.

Sadly, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) notes that 54% of people with a mental illness don’t access any treatment. It’s an alarming statistic, and one that could be plaguing many AFL players.

As a result, mental health has become a major area of focus for the AFL and the AFLPA to combat. With the AFLPA’s Injury & Hardship Fund, the organisation is acting directly on the area of focus.

‘Past Player Hardship’, the second pillar of the AFLPA’s Injury & Hardship Fund, details the offerings for players experiencing adversity following their AFL careers. Within the ‘Past Player Hardship’ pillar are two sections.

The first is the ‘Geoff Pryor Fund’, allowing AFLPA Alumni members experiencing hardship due to injury, illness or wellbeing issues the ability to apply for financial assistance up to $5000. Furthermore, the second section, the ‘General Hardship’, offers a more extensive benefit than what is available to through the ‘Geoff Pryor Fund’ to a past player suffering significant temporary or long-term hardship.

The AFLPA’s Alumni Manager Brad Fisher says the Health and Wellbeing pillar is a huge priority to the AFLPA.

“Our Health and Wellbeing pillar is definitely our strongest pillar and we focus a lot of time and effort on it… [Within] our Hardship support, we’ve got a wellbeing network of nearly 100 clinical psychologists now around the country. Former players can have unlimited complimentary sessions with the wellbeing specialists.”

Former Richmond and Port Adelaide player Matt White has appreciated the effort the AFLPA are making to look after former players’ experiencing tough times.

“The AFLPA are doing as much as they can right now… Get the players talking about [mental health], talk about it amongst your mates. It’s a pretty important thing that the AFL have and are still addressing. Hopefully it just keeps growing.”

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Former Richmond and Port Adelaide player Matt White.

White believes that current players need to be open about their struggles with mental health, in order to remove the stigma and encourage conversation surrounding the issue.

“As a culture of Australians, we don’t really reach out for the help, which is a blight on us, but the AFLPA are trying to do everything they can.”

“It probably goes back to the stars who are playing now to be able to come out. I think Patrick Dangerfield was one who came out and said ‘I struggled with some stuff and I have gone and spoke to some people about it.’ The more we can get role models speaking out about it and getting people to do it, it will make the AFLPA’s job so much easier, because it is a major issue now with all the social media and everything else that’s going on.”

While the Injury & Hardship Fund doesn’t directly impact current players at this stage in their career, the work of the AFLPA in setting up the fund is certainly recognised by present players. Collingwood defender Tyson Goldsack – who has had his fair share of injuries and is currently recovering from a knee reconstruction – may know best of all present players the vulnerability of AFL players. The veteran realises that an AFL career is only a small portion of a player’s life.

“The career of a footy player is quite short and there’s a long life post-career. If there are players doing it tough and the AFLPA can help out a bit, I think it’s great.”

“It’s hard for me to talk about because I haven’t been through it. To go from being an AFL player to go into the working world and have troubles like your body letting you down so you can’t sustain a job, [then] the AFLPA can come in and provide money for a surgery you might need or just to get you back on your feet. I think that’s very important.”

Goldsack_and_Riewoldt

Collingwood's Tyson Goldsack wrestles with Richmond's Jack Riewoldt.

Goldsack also acknowledged the effort of the AFLPA in creating the AFL Alumni, which he believed would be effective in bringing past players back into the AFL community.

“There’s the Hardship Fund, but there’s also the AFL Past Players Alumni, so that might be to connect back to other past players and to be a part of a club again. I think the Alumni is a great move by the AFLPA and it brings people back into the fold to show that they have that support still.”

The mental health conversation remains in its infancy in the AFL. However, with the AFL and the AFLPA continually working hard to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, the Injury & Hardship Fund is a leap in the right direction. 

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