May 8th, 2015.
The final siren sounds.
Geelong have just beaten Collingwood by 41 points on the MCG in front of a loud and passionate crowd of 50,000.
Geelong forward Mitch Clark kicked two goals in a dominant performance by the Cats.
The players began celebrating their win amongst their fans; but an AFL photographer noticed one Geelong player who wasn’t celebrating.
“I noticed Clark was distraught, fighting to hold off tears as the team began to leave the field. Call it a sixth sense... I just knew something wasn’t right,” AFL photographer Michael Willson tells Upstart.
The celebrations around him meant Clark’s distress went unnoticed by most, but Willson watched on as Clark walked down the race and into the rooms with Geelong coach Chris Scott by his side.
Overcome with sadness, Clark wandered off down the side corridor while his teammates went the other way to sing the club song in the rooms, where all the other media were waiting.
Credit: AFL Media
What transpired from that one click on Michael Willson’s camera that night became headline news the following morning. Not only was the photograph raw and unscripted, but a powerful message and conversation about mental illness in sport emerged.
Chief Herald Sun AFL writer tweeted about Mitch Clark that night...
While AFL fans shared their concerns and messages on Twitter as well...
For Willson, that single photo is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.
“Personally I think the image symbolises a small step towards demystifying depression in the sporting arena, and more widely, society in general. It encapsulates the care and support that is now shown and needed towards mental health, especially in the Australian Football environment where for so long mental illness was seen as a sign of fragility and weakness.”
Mitch Clark has had a publicised battle with depression. After spending the first six years of his AFL career in Brisbane, he moved to Melbourne to play for the Demons in late 2011. After only eleven games in two years for his new club, Clark announced his immediate retirement from the game due to personal issues including clinical depression.
At the end of 2014, after six months out of the game, Clark made a surprising return to the AFL, signing with the Geelong Cats in a bid to reignite his AFL career. Five games into his new chapter with the Cats, the iconic photo was taken and his depression was at the forefront of his career once again.
Michael Willson believes Clark has become the public face of mental health within the AFL, almost by default. He is one of the most high profile athletes in AFL, and in sport, to have opened up publicly about mental illness.
Clark, an avid photographer himself, often uses his social media platforms to speak about depression. He posts powerful and personal messages and photos to his Facebook and Instagram; and he has received incredible support, admiration and respect in doing so.
Mental illness in the AFL has long been a topic that not many have dared to explore, discuss or write about.
In what is often perceived as a manly, macho and ‘boys club’ culture, conversations around depression in the AFL have only started to surface in the last decade. Earlier this year, Chief Football Writer at the Herald Sun, Mark Robinson, described depression as a ‘hidden disease’ within the AFL.
The now infamous ‘Mitch Clark photo’, photographed by Michael Willson, started a conversation about depression in the AFL.
This is Simon Hogan.
Originally from Warrnambool, Simon moved to Geelong as a 19 year-old after being drafted to Geelong with the 57th pick in the 2006 AFL National Draft.
Despite not playing any senior football for the Cats in his first two years with the club, Simon says he felt on top of the world.
“As a young adult, the lifestyle - getting used to having money and Geelong having success on field made it such an enjoyable place to be,” he tells Upstart.
Football had never been the most important thing in Simon’s life. However, as he started to immerse himself into the ‘AFL lifestyle’ and as a professional athlete, his perception of football started to change.
“As time went on, I started to put a bit more pressure on myself to make the most of the opportunity I had been given... I started to become more stressed about my performance; have more expectations on my training standards... and football became the most important thing for me to measure myself and my happiness by.”
By his own admission, that became quite problematic.
Simon started to restrict himself outside of football. He spent less time with friends outside the club, dropped his university studies and became completely focused on his job - to play professional football - a job envied by so many young men his age.
Externally, playing AFL football seems like the perfect job. You get paid a lot of money to run around on a football field with your teammates, earn the praise and respect from your peers and fans, and work towards football’s greatest honour - winning a premiership.
The Geelong Football Club won three premierships during Simon’s tenure with the club, and fielded some of the best footballers at the time; including Gary Ablett Jr, James Bartel and Stevie Johnson.
Simon was an emergency player in the 2009 Grand Final, and won two VFL premierships during his career. Despite being a part of one of the most successful teams in AFL history, Simon struggled with the expectation and pressure of being a professional footballer, both internally and externally. However, it was the internal pressure he put on himself which would have the greater impact.
Simon had his two best seasons with Geelong in 2009 and 2010, where he managed to play some consistent football in the Cats’ senior side. But the balance in his life wasn’t right and he started to struggle with his mental health.
In 2010, Simon was diagnosed with clinical depression.
“Depression was never a part of my life growing up. I had certain perfectionistic traits growing up and set high standards for myself. I was hard on myself in many ways but it was never an issue or a problem. The perfectionism started to come out more in my footy... and it became hard to handle.”
Simon suffered privately for months and tried to hide the fact that he was battling depression. He reached a point in his mental health journey where he was very unwell, suicidal and unable to make clear decisions by himself.
After his most serious episode of depression, Simon made the decision, with the help of his family and the Geelong Football Club to check into the Melbourne Clinic - a private mental health service in Richmond.
Deep into his battle with depression, Simon says the hardest part of his mental health journey was telling the playing group at Geelong.
After a traumatic few months, Simon re-joined the Geelong players for the first time on the Gold Coast, where the Cats were playing an away game during the season. Simon marked this as one of the pivotal moments in his recovery.
“The most important thing was how they treated me. They came up and gave me a hug. They did the things that men don’t often to do each other.”
Rather than tip toeing around the issue, Simon explains how his teammates (some closer friends than others) were able to make him feel comfortable again, by joking around with him and treating him no different than any other player.
“I think I can honestly say by opening up and talking about my depression, I gained a lot more respect than I could have on the field. It had made me wish I had done it earlier and it was a great reflection on the footy club.”
For the first time in a long time, it wasn’t all about footy for Simon Hogan. In early 2012, he made the decision that the coming season would be his last. At 24 years of age, with 22 games played across six years at the Geelong Football Club, Simon walked away from his AFL career.
“I loved my time at the club and I loved getting the most out of myself. But I also knew I wanted to apply that to other areas – studies, travel and other areas of being a young adult. I haven’t regretted that decision one bit. I miss the competitiveness, the friendships but the balance is much better now than it was at Geelong.”
Now four years on, Simon is still on his mental health journey. Although he’s not battling with any mental health issues, he says he is very aware of what he needs to do to keep himself mentally well.
“I feel lucky because I was so public about things. People check up on me and ask potent questions... I’ve worked out a better balance for my life...I’ve felt good for a few years and I’m quite proud of my journey”.
Since retiring from football and finishing a psychology degree in 2013, Simon has discovered a new passion and love - working within Australia’s health realm.
Simon was an ambassador for Headspace (a National Youth Mental Health Organisation) during his time with Geelong and continued in a part-time role focusing on community engagement post football.
“Headspace gave me a voice to talk to young people, particularly men... I enjoyed getting out and talking to people in the community about my journey in mental health. I went on some road trips to indigenous communities with Headspace which was fascinating”.
In the past two decades, Simon Hogan was one of the first players to go public with mental illness whilst still playing AFL. Other players like Geelong’s Mitch Clark, Sydney’s Lance Franklin, Adelaide’s Sam Siggins and Greater Western Sydney’s Cam McCarthy have since opened up about their own mental health struggles. Nathan Thompson and Wayne Schwauss, two wonderful advocates for mental health, were two footballers who opened up about their battles post-football in retirement.
Simon believes athletes talking about their own mental health does have a positive effect, particularly on young men.
“So many young people aspire to be in those positions (play AFL), and to have high profile people show vulnerability can have such an impact on the youth... And at a societal level, particularly men, seeing these high profile people putting their hand up, I think it is changing the way people perceive mental health”.
Simon is aware and has accepted the fact that he is perhaps more well-known for his contributions to the mental health discussion, as opposed to his AFL career with Geelong.
But for him, he is happy to see the broader football community sending much more positive messages about mental health than even five years go when he was playing. According to Simon, the key is to get these messages across to young men in particular, and educate and converse with them about their mental health.
Through his public and incredibly brave mental health journey, Simon has opened up doors and changed the landscape for many young Australians, and other AFL footballers to feel comfortable and open in talking about their own mental health journeys.
This is Sam Siggins.
A promising up and coming defender with the Adelaide Crows, Sam decided to walk away from the game at the age of 21 after an emotional and challenging battle with depression in 2015. His career was done after just three seasons with Adelaide, before playing an official AFL game.
Siggins grew up in Tasmania, before moving to South Australia in 2012, when he was drafted to the Adelaide Football Club with the 62nd pick in the National Draft.
Moving away from home was difficult, but his first few experiences with the club are among his favourite moments as a professional footballer.
“My best experience was the start of my career and meeting all the boys when I first got to the club. The club was unbelievable and made me feel welcome. Adelaide Football Club was so good to me and through out my whole 3 years,” Siggins tells Upstart.
After a few years spent in Adelaide’s SANFL side developing as a player and dealing with injuries, Siggins felt like he was ready to make his mark on the AFL. He worked hard, trained tirelessly and completed a solid 2015 pre-season in a bid to put to his hand up for senior selection at the Crows. Despite all of his hard work, 2015 would prove to be an emotionally confronting and heartbreaking year for Sam, and the Adelaide Football Club.
In February last year, Siggins was involved in a pre-season training drill, when he collided with fellow Crows team mate and defender Brent Reilly in a marking contest. Unfortunately, Reilly was hit in the head and fractured his skull. He was forced to retire from football, after 13 years with the Crows.
“Obviously it was an accident, but at the time it was very hard to deal with what had happened. There was a time where I didn’t know what was going to happen with Brent, and thankfully he’s okay now”, Sam explains.
Despite reassurance and support from all around him, including coaches, players, friends and family, Sam struggled to forget the accidental, freak incident with his team mate, and admits it was the start of a challenging year for him. After dealing with anxiety throughout his youth, Sam’s mental health deteriorated and suffered further when his coach, Phil Walsh, was tragically killed in July.
“I was really close to Phil, he helped me a lot, especially after the Brent Reilly accident – he was the biggest help for me along with Emma Bahr (Adelaide FC’s Player Welfare manager).”
Phil Walsh’s death took an emotional toll on Sam, who was already battling with depression. Phil was a mentor to many of the young players at Adelaide, and would often speak to them about the importance of life outside football. Sam, who was over 1200km from his home in Tasmania, would often turn to his coach for advice and support.
Sam endured a dark period where he struggled to get out of bed, go to training and feel upbeat for games. It was that stage, Sam decided to inform Adelaide FC and open up about his depression. He then made the decision to walk away from the AFL, and return home to Tasmania in August last year.
The headline of the article - ‘I know the feeling, Bud’ - refers to Sydney Swans superstar Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin’s battle with mental illness last year, which Sam found great solace from.
Buddy Franklin, the champion footballer who has kicked over 700 goals across his renowned career, withdrew from Sydney’s finals campaign last year after seeking treatment for depression.
After news of Franklin’s depression spread around the country, Sam says he was able to feel more comfortable.
“Buddy Franklin has always been a player I’ve looked up to so for him to come out and say he had mental health problems was massive for me. To know someone of his calibre to come out made me feel a lot more comfortable to the public. I didn't feel as embarrassed. It made me feel a lot better and helped me a lot.”
Sam believes the AFL and the AFL Player’s Association are doing an amazing job in supporting player welfare. Sam credits the Adelaide Football Club as well as Emma Bahr (Adelaide FC’s Player Welfare Manager) for supporting him through his difficult period last year.
“It’s super important for the players because it is a stressful environment... and I would have struggled without a player welfare manager and I’m forever thankful to the AFL and Adelaide for supporting me. I also can’t thank Emma enough; she really helped me during that period. She was the only one who really understood and is the only one who will understand how bad I was at that time.”
Almost six months on, Siggins is at peace with his decision to walk away from the AFL, although the passion to play football is still there. He is back playing football in the state-leagues in Tasmania and is loving being back around his family and friends at home.
Despite not playing an official AFL game in his career, his greatest contribution to the AFL may be his decision to publicly open up about his battle with depression. Like Simon Hogan, by speaking out, Siggins is helping to break down the stigma and open up the conversation regarding mental health in sport.
David is a former North Melbourne player who played from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. David King is very familiar with the changing landscapes of mental health within the playing circle.
King spoke to upstart about how depression and mental health issues have been perceived within the league, including the stigma surrounding mental health comparatively between when he played in comparison to now.
For King, the stance on depression within the AFL has changed considerably.
“It wasn’t spoken about when I was a player, you probably would have been seen to be weak, no doubt many talented footballers fell by the wayside, because one, they didn’t know what their issue was, and two, there was no support, and honestly we didn’t care, we didn’t know enough about it to care.
He believes the change has come about because of the different attitude the new younger generation of players have, and says they are more understanding of emotions and mental stresses. He applauds the likes of Danny Frawley, Nathan Thompson, Mitch Clark and Wayne Schwass, who have spoken out about their own mental health battles.
It’s almost like coming out and saying you’re gay, you are that person for life, everyone will attach that to you...It’s a brave thing to do.”
As a footballer, King says that he felt judged differently from everyone else, and that other players face the same scrutiny. The two hours they play construct nearly their entire reputation, a reputation they can’t change until their next match. Poor form in games can easily be the slippery slope towards mental health stresses.
But alongside the greater understanding of mental health, there are now a great number of ways that people - players or not - can get help.
Over the last couple of years, the AFL have been conducting research into mental health.
“There has been an increased awareness and acceptance, whereas 20-30 years ago people with mental health issues would have internalised them,” a spokesperson from the AFL told upstart.
Players and staff are now more aware and more confident talking about the issue; however some do still internalise the problem. He states this is usually because of their personality and the way they perceive mental health and the stigma, though he believes they are on the right track to develop a culture where it is accepted and spoken about more.
“More often than not, they’re surprised by the amount of support they receive once they do speak out about their problems.”
Within clubs, there are player development managers who look after a player’s welfare, career, as well as offer general lifestyle advice. In addition, players also have access to welfare officers and club psychologists. Outside of their club, there is also the AFL players union that offers an anonymous service providing resources and psychologists who can help.
The AFL spokesperson made it clear that mental health within the AFL community has the “same scope” as the general public. The only difference being that AFL players are directly in the public eye. His advice is to ‘find someone who you are comfortable with to talk to.’ Such a person does not always necessarily need to be a personal friend or family member, with entire national organisations set up to provide support, such as beyondblue and Headspace.
beyondblue hosts annual AFL matches for the beyondblue Cup between Hawthorn and Sydney. The game raises funds and awareness around depression within not only the AFL but on a wider scale.
beyondblue has a close affiliation with the AFL’s Hawthorn Hawks, including their former president and current beyondblue chairman The Hon Jeff Kennett. Jeff Kennett AC told the Hawthorn website the beyondblue Cup is an ideal way to get the message across.
“The beyondblue Cup is a great way to raise awareness of depression and anxiety and of beyondblue’s work within the AFL community.”
“One of the great things about football is how players look out for their teammates on the field. I hope this camaraderie reminds footy fans about the importance of looking out for their mates, not just physically, but mentally, and reaching out if they seem to be struggling.” Kennett told HawthornFC.com.au.
beyondblue’s Dr. Stephen Carbone says being in the public spotlight of the AFL can put huge pressure on someones mental state.
Carbon goes on to say that while the stigma is slowly going away, there is still plenty of work to be done on this very sensitive issue.
Headspace is another organisation that focuses on depression among many other things. Headspace focus more on the younger generation through the ages of 12-25. They have many centres around the country and also have online consultants who can chat at any time.
Josh Watson from Headspace Knox tells Upstart it is very important to seek help as soon as you can. “The foundation for any helping relationship is establishing a therapeutic alliance, openly discussing the problem, and having a collaborative approach. Other helpful strategies that can be introduced within this helping relationship include skill development around problem solving, stress management and activity planning.”
Watson says there are many signs show a person has depression and there are many that AFL players would be subject too but also that it could be something they have already had. “Depressive disorders tend to first appear in adolescence or early adulthood. One in every five adolescents are likely to experience a diagnosable depressive episode by the age of 18. In Australia, it’s estimated that 6 to 7 percent of young people aged 16 to 24 will experience depression in any year.”
Watson says that while all this can happen, those that seek help will be able to get back on track. “There is a cure and most people who seek support will achieve a full recovery and live normal and fulfilling lives.”
Many sports stars are ambassadors for Headspace including Simon Hogan, former player Daniel Jackson and currently Hawthorn Hawk Matthew Spangher.
Headspace CEO Chris Tanti says Headspace are aiming to add more centres around Australia to help do everything they can to help people with depression. “At headspace we believe mental health is about being able to work and study to your full potential” cope with day-to-day life stresses, be involved in your community and live your life in a free and satisfying way.”