Jake Edwards was 22 when he began his descent to rock bottom. He calls the following four years his "cyclone years". The former Carlton footballer had dreams of following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather who both played over 100 AFL games, but an injury sidelined him early in his career and he was eventually delisted.
Edwards had battled depression for most of his short AFL career too, a condition that was exacerbated after a VFL premiership win in 2011 when he tried cocaine for the first time. Ecstasy, speed and heroin soon followed. "It came into my life at the right time," Edwards says. "It filled a void that made me feel like I didn't have to worry about anything anymore." In 18 months his bank account dwindled from $150,000 to 45 cents, all blown on partying. When his savings ran out, he started trading his belongings at Cash Converters to pay for his nights out. At the end of a particularly big weekend, Edwards reached his lowest point. He would be dead today if the hair dryer cord he used to try and hang himself hadn't snapped. Fortunately, help arrived before he could do further harm.
I could probably name about 15 current AFL players … that got to the point Majak got to
Fast forward another four years and Edwards is the one providing the lifeline to hundreds of young athletes through Outside The Locker Room. Within a year of his suicide attempt and after eight months of rehab, in 2015 Edwards started OTLR with the aim of helping athletes and young people with the mental pressures that are experienced off the playing field. Last year it became a not for profit organisation, now servicing around 180 sporting clubs and schools around the country with educational talks, welfare and community engagement programs, referral networks and a mobile app. "It was always been a goal of mine to get [OTLR] to a point where it's free," says Edwards. "And that's where it deserves to be."
From the sidelines, athletes, especially those at an elite level, can seem to have it all. Fame. Money (footballers are paid "far too much", in Edwards' opinion). Medals. Adulation from fans in the sporting arena and millions more watching from home. But for those taught the importance of winning a race or match, it can be hard to admit to feeling less than strong. It's only in recent years that the candour of high-profile athletes including Ian Thorpe, Leisel Jones and a number of AFL players has revealed that many of our sporting heroes are fighting their own personal battles, too. It's a truth that was thrown into stark focus when Majak Daw was hospitalised in December after an incident on the Bolte Bridge that left him with serious hip and pelvic injuries, rocking the AFL community and beyond.
Georgia Ridler has witnessed these athletes' struggles first-hand. The sports psychologist was brought in to work with Australian swimming team after the Dolphins' dismal performance at the London Olympics. Ridler, who has also worked with the Australian gymnastics, water polo and beach volleyball teams, says there are pressures that are specific to each sport. "The athlete is first and foremost a person that, like all of us, is dealing with a multitude of issues on a daily basis," Ridler says. "They're still having to take that onto the field or into the water."
While there is a division between performance psychology and mental health treatment for athletes, it's often "two sides of the same coin," says David Williams, chair of the College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists, team psychologist for the Melbourne Football Club and consulting psychologist for The Australian Ballet. "It might be through performance that we start to worry about someone's mental health, what we're doing is trying to ascertain what the issues are and then try and take the path most relevant," he says.
While we're all vulnerable to stress, Williams notes that it might be more pronounced for a dancer -- whose rigourous training schedule doesn't leave much time for socialising and leisure and whose work is closely scrutinised -- than for, say, a waiter or someone working in a bank. "If you're an athlete or a very well known artist, what happens to you happens on a much more public scale," he says. "There's always been an appetitive to help athletes, there's a much greater appetite now to say this [psychology] is part of our framework, it's strength and conditioning for the mind, effectively," says Williams.
He points to the AFL as a code that is doing a good job of incorporating mental health into the framework. But ex-AFL star Wayne Schwass, who went public in 2006 about the depression that plagued him for most of his career, says the code still has a long way to go.
"We're giving these young men every opportunity to be the best athletes they can but these young men are human beings who sometimes don't have the skill set or maturity to deal with stress in their emotional life," says Schwass, who founded the mental health support organisation Puka Up and in 2017 launched an accompanying podcast, chatting with the likes of Julia Gillard, Kyle Vander-Kuyp and Libby Trickett about mental health.
"We need the appropriately trained people with the skills and expertise to support these men as athletes, but more importantly than that, to support them as developing, maturing males," he says. Increasingly, one of the main sources of stress for athletes is the media, and what Schwass calls "the new frontier of social media." "For every AFL player, there are two accredited journalists," he says, "and there's an industry that reports on their behaviour 24/7, 52 weeks a year."
Pair this with the incessant comments and opinion-slinging on social media and, short of disconnecting from media altogether, it's difficult for an athlete to escape the public glare. To cut through the noise, Schwass prescribes a holistic approach to mental health. "The longer term opportunity for us as an industry and a country is to change attitudes and perceptions like we did with racial vilification," he says. "Then in 25 years time we can sit back and go you know what, we all played a role in removing stigma which is discrimination and along with that, the rates of suicide have dropped dramatically."
It's crucial that the right type of care is provided, says Edwards, support that goes far beyond meeting a minimum spend and calling the first name in the phone book. If the help is not relatable, with an intimate understanding of their issues, athletes, and especially footballers will have a hard time opening up -- and the consequences could be deadly.
"I could probably name about 15 current AFL players that I have spoken to in the past two years that got to the point Majak got to, without that whole event happening," says Edwards. "There's a lot more going on than people see or hear about."
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