AFLPA's $900,000 focus on mental health

AFL footballers have joined forces with clubs, player agents and the AFL to tackle the challenge they have identified as the most confronting faced by the game — the mental health of its players.

In an unprecedented act of collaboration, the AFL Players' Association will next year contribute almost $1 million across the 18 clubs to establish a variety of programs and services to improve the emotional wellbeing of their footballers.

That sum is almost half the annual amount of $2.1 million provided annually to better resource player welfare to the AFLPA under the latest collective bargaining agreement.

A growing number of AFL players are opening up about their mental health battles.

A growing number of AFL players are opening up about their mental health battles.

In 2017 three players — Alex Fasolo, Tom Boyd and Travis Cloke – publicly retreated from the game for various periods due to mental illness, with Lance Franklin seeking institutional help after withdrawing from the Swans' 2015 finals campaign. In 2013 Sydney premiership coach John Longmire told the AFL Commission that five of his 2012 premiership players had battled mental illness during the finals.

While players have previously spoken publicly about suffering from depression, anxiety and various forms of addiction, mental illness is no longer stigmatised within the competition. At least two members of Gillon McLachlan’s executive team have made no secret within the game’s headquarters that they suffer from depression.

Late last year came the establishment of the Industry Governance Committee, which is headed by players boss Paul Marsh and AFL football boss Steve Hocking and chaired by Boston Consulting’s Grant McCabe.

Created to adopt a unified approach to the mental health crisis, the committee controls the annual allocation of the $2.1 million which will increase each year over the six-year CBA.

The committee also includes AFL commissioner Tanya Hosch, St Kilda chief Matt Finnis, Brisbane Lions football boss David Noble, Swans welfare boss Dennis Carroll and retired Hawthorn premiership player Brad Sewell. It has already met seven times and will introduce at least one influential player agent to provide a manager’s insight into player welfare issues, which range from anxiety to addiction to cultural challenges to career transition.

This year clubs can each call upon a total of $25,000 from the AFLPA to spend on mental health and other welfare resources, with that amount increasing to $50,000 per club next season — a total in 2019 of $900,000.

The clubs in turn must demonstrate the money is being spent responsibly with external providers and consultants all subjected to a vetting process.

Sixteen clubs have already established steering committees made up of players, welfare managers, club directors and executives along with an AFLPA staffer to identify their own mental health priorities.

Under this strict new process, a group such as Collective Minds — with no psychological qualifications — would have been unlikely to receive funding from the AFLPA.

The players have also funded an independent investigation run by Dr Daisy Brooke from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation across AFL six clubs – Hawthorn, St Kilda, Port Adelaide, Western Bulldogs, Greater Western Sydney and the Brisbane Lions. Dr Brooke’s role is to help identify a united approach to a range of wellbeing issues including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, relationship breakdowns and gambling.

The British-born Dr Brooke, who had previously been seconded by the Bulldogs to implement a mental health strategy at that club, will present her findings next month to the industry governance committee.

At the six clubs — which were randomly targeted — Dr Brooke has interviewed players, coaches and executives along with senior staffers from the AFL, the AFLPA and the AFL Coaches Association.

Coaches, too, have identified players’ mental health as the game’s greatest concern and have privately raised fears of losing players to suicide, pointing out that clubs still remain under-resourced in the welfare area.

AFL executive Hocking said the stronger alignment between players, clubs and head office would help create ‘‘a roadmap for the competition for a united approach to tackle the mental health issue.’’

Hocking added that players would find it easier to seek help for mental illness and related problems from within their own club environments because that normalised their individual challenges.
‘‘We’ve tended to outsource in the past,’’ said Hocking, ‘‘and we want to stop the double handling and identify where to best allocate our resources.’’

Marsh presented the strategy to the 18 club football bosses last week and planned to meet the club chief executives next month. He told the football managers that while each club’s players faced different emotional challenges requiring a variety of approaches, resources had too often in the past been duplicated by clubs and the AFLPA and other outside consultants.

Marsh also stressed that external providers would be subject to ‘‘quality controls’’ and that the industry governance committee would not fund unqualified providers.

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