Mental health advocate Jake Edwards.
Mental health advocate Jake Edwards.

Sports clubs urged to take up fight off the playing field

A LOT can get done when it comes to facing challenges on the sporting field; many thrive and legends are born.

But it's a different story when it comes to facing challenges off it.

Sayings like 'she'll be right,' 'get on with, it' and 'harden up' are cultural hallmarks in sport, and all too often are used as coping methods to deal with a much deeper issue.

Such was the case with former AFL player Jake Edwards, who saw his career derailed after crippling bouts of anxiety and depression that sent his life spiralling out of control.

Almost a decade on, the 30-year-old now travels the country sharing his heartbreaking story, like he did at the Larrikin Hotel last week where he said at one point "you could hear a pin drop” when local emergency service personnel shared their own harrowing tales to the crowd.

"I had the world at my feet,” Mr Edwards said. "I'd just signed a contract for $100,000. 

"But I'd sit on my bed every morning crying because I had such an isolation issue with anxiety and stress and I didn't want to be around my teammates.

"I got to a moment in my life after I'd lost everything where I felt suicide was my only option.”

Mr Edwards said when he failed, the thing that saved his life was his phone ringing in his pocket, and the letters D-A-D flashing on his screen and his father coming to pick him up.

His program Outside the Locker Room educates community sporting clubs around the country on mental health in sport, and how to be proactive and responsible when confronted with it.

"Eighty per cent of our sporting clubs are in rural places like Bowen,” Mr Edwards said.

"What we find is there is a lot of agricultural business. And what comes with that is the typical 'blokey bloke' type of attitude which can lead to a behavioural pattern of emotional disconnect, which can have a snow ball effect down the track.”

Attitudes like these are especially prevalent in areas like Bowen, Mr Edwards said. 

With careers often of a fly in fly out nature that ebb and flow with the economy, sport becomes a place males in particular turn to for purpose to seek validation during times of hardship.

It places clubs at the forefront of people's lives, and therefore offers a significant advantage to assist and identify problems such as anxiety, depression or thoughts of suicide when they arise.

"What we've found is a strong need for education among community clubs. But the mums and dads who run them often aren't qualified to have these conversations, and can be a bit taken aback,” he said.

"People who come from small towns tend to have reputations and don't want people to think they're struggling.”

As much was echoed on Wednesday night by firefighter Rob Luscott who encountered one of the darkest times of his life after a close friend took his life some years ago. 

"No one knew what he was going through, and this is the problem with mental health is that you don't know when your mates are suffering,” Mr Luscott said.

"Sometimes all it takes is to put an arm around and ask 'how are you travelling?' 

After going through it myself, I can say it's not something that you can deal with on your own.” 

Bowen Seagulls rugby league club treasurer Becky Otto said that "macho mentality” was a common occurrence, and she believes an increase in mental health awareness is something clubs could benefit from.

"We're lucky with our club, as a lot of the parents and coaches have great relationships within the clubs,” she said.

"But within the bigger clubs you play against you definitely see that mentality take place.

"Stresses of school, work and home life can take a big toll on young men in the community and I think education on the issue is something all clubs could benefit from.”

Mr Edwards said the worst thing sporting clubs could do is think they couldn't be affected by mental health.

"What we do in Australia and particularly in the sporting culture is we wait until there is an issue before we seek help, and what happens is we don't know where to go.

"My advice is to be proactive and look at services within the region and invite them to the club and offer a presentation to try and incorporate as much welfare support as you can.”

For more information about Outside the Locker Room and how it can help, visit the program's website at www.outsidethelockerroom.com.au. 

 


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