Earlier this week the Collingwood Football Club announced that small forward, Alex Fasolo, would not play this weekend as he seeks treatment for depression. At this stage it is not known whether he'll be ok to play in next week's Queen's Birthday match against Melbourne or, indeed, when he will return to the side.
On the day the news was announced Jordan Lewis took his place in his regular spot on Fox Footy's AFL 360. When discussing Fasolo's situation, Lewis said he had "no doubt" that social media "had an effect on players and their mental health." Bulldogs captain, Bob Murphy, echoed the sentiments the following morning on SEN.
They make a good point. In the past players would often say they don't read the papers in case there were negative comments being written about them. In those days bad press was slightly easier to avoid. Don't listen to the talkback callers, don't open the paper.
These days it is far more difficult. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are also social networking sites and, like most young people, AFL footballers would feel the need to use these sites to socialise and keep in touch with friends and family. Unfortunately for players, it is much easier for anyone with an opinion to have it heard or seen by the public and for that public to include the person to whom the opinion applies.
It's not for us to say whether that circumstance specifically applies to Alec Fasolo. What has brought upon a bout of depression for him is quite frankly none of our business. What is not up for debate, though, is that taking to social media to criticise Fasolo in any way at this time is ill-considered, at best, and downright cruel and hurtful, at worst.
Chief Football Writer at the Herald-Sun, Mark Robinson, sat alongside Jordan Lewis on AFL 360 the other night. One must assume that he was paying attention when Lewis aired his concerns about social media. With that in mind, it is truly stunning that Robinson used Twitter to make a "joke" about Fasolo returning to Collingwood training.
"Good drugs," he tweeted, with no knowledge of whether Fasolo has been prescribed any medication at all.
In the interest of fairness, it should be pointed out that Robinson has since publicly apologised for his tweet stating that it was the "wrong choice of words." Presumably what he meant to say was "Its great to see Alex back on the track and doing well" or something similar, but that may be giving Robinson too much credit.
This is not a personal attack on Mark Robinson, but he has something of a history of insensitivity regarding mental illness. As recently as March this year he asked former Essendon champion, Mark Thompson, what his reaction was when he heard his old colleague, James Hird, had "tried to kill himself." That comment was reported by at least one viewer to SANE Australia's StigmaWatch for using insensitive language regarding suicide. SANE brought the matter to Fox Sport's attention and were assured that the network would provide training to on-air presenters about how to cover mental illness and suicide.
One must assume that Robinson was paying attention when the training was conducted. Again, this is not a personal attack on Mark Robinson, but its hard not to also think of his approach to the controversy surrounding Garry Lyon's absence from the media last year. While Lyon was taking time off to attend to his own mental health concerns, Robinson used the opportunity to score points in a personal spat with the likes of James Brayshaw and Damien Barrett. The Triple M team seemingly delighted in calling out Robinson this time around. Read Rebecca Hayne's latest blog post for an insightful dissection of that side of the story.
While this is definitely not an attack on Mark Robinson, one can not help but cast their mind back a few years to his reporting on Heritier Lumumba, then known as Harry O'Brien, and his calls for the player to "harden up." The day after he used those words in a 2013 editorial it was revealed Lumumba was dealing with significant mental health issues.
Robinson's response was to write another editorial, that very day, this time displaying a certain amount of empathy.
"Yes, O'Brien has serious issues," he wrote, "but they can't compromise the footy club." He added that Lumumba "sooked it up" when he clashed with his coach and "stormed out" of the club.
Roughly two hours after that article, which contained mentions of Lumumba's revelations of experience with sexual abuse, was published online, Robinson tweeted "Media reporting Harry O'Brien did not suffer sexual abuse."
The logical inference is that Robinson doubted Lumumba's claims and by extension doubted the authenticity of his mental illness.
While this displays a pattern of ignorance and insensitivity displayed by Robinson in the area of mental illness, this is most certainly not a personal attack. This is a plea to the likes of Robinson to educate themselves on the serious of mental illness and how to best frame the conversation around it.
"When football is all consuming and there is little balance in nurturing the body, mind and soul of AFL players they are increasingly susceptible to the highs and lows associated with on field performance," he said.
"In an industry where a drop in form, the twist of a knee or a deviation from protocol can have considerable impact on the satisfaction a player will derive from their job, sustaining personal happiness can be precarious."
Prof. Hickey also addressed the potential complications in acknowledging mental illness in an environment such as an AFL club.
"In a context where hardness, resilience and stoicism are celebrated, conceding that you are struggling or having mental health issues can be difficult."
The AFL Players' Association recognise the dangers to mental health that a career at the top level can present. As well as putting past and present players in touch with a national network of experienced psychologists and conducting AFL-specific mental health first aid training, the AFLPA runs programs such as MAX360 as a way of developing players' off-field opportunities.
A life of meaning outside club commitments is very important for AFL players says Prof. Hickey. "Where the average career is only around 40 games and relatively few players determine their own departure from the game, there is much to be gained by preparing players for life after football," he said.
"The problem, of course, is in getting players who are wholly focused on being successful footballers, to adopt a prudent disposition to life after football."
There is also the matter of how much time an AFL player can afford to dedicate to outside interests. The 2015-2016 Collective Bargaining Agreement states that players must have one and a half days off per week as a minimum.
"Beyond training sessions are reviews, team meetings, conditional sessions, rehabilitation sessions and so on. The aggregate effect of these commitments means that there is relatively little time for players to get meaningfully involved in non-football activities," says Prof. Hickey.
"Early career players, in particular, tend to put an enormous focus on becoming a footballer and are most content to devote their time to being at the club. While there is a strong belief that all players would be better off if they had something substantial to do outside of football, the reality for many is that this is easier said than done."
Is it any wonder that some players find themselves suffering from mental health issues? Even for the healthiest among us the high pressure life of an AFL footballer would take some toll.
The online environment changes at a pace that can be hard to keep up with, though. Internet trolls and online bullying pose a problem for anyone that engages in social media and that would be multiplied for those in the public eye.
Speaking from experience, a negative comment, regardless how innocent the intent, can be ruminated upon for a long while by someone suffering from depression. That rumination can lead to self doubt, self loathing and more serious places beyond.
I say "from experience" because I do have first hand knowledge of the dangers of depression. Almost six years ago, following a traumatic family event, I was diagnosed with chronic depression. Through some intensive counselling I came to the realisation that I had probably been living with the condition for the previous 10-15 years, and using various coping mechanisms I had developed myself. I'd taught myself very well how to behave as regular healthy people do, all the while having a feeling of worthlessness and dread that never really went away.
The nature of my illness, as I have discovered, is that with the help of medication and counselling I can use healthy methods such as self-awareness to keep myself on an even keel. As good as I may feel most days, though, I know that there are certain triggers that can cause a downturn in mood and a significantly traumatic event can cause a prolonged period of severe depression. Having depression is not simply a case of feeling sad, but more an emotional and physical inability to motivate oneself.
It's a very difficult thing to talk about. Even as I type this I have a knot in my stomach and I know that I'll probably need to lie down later due to sheer exhaustion. What makes it harder to talk about is the complete lack of understanding, or even unwillingness to understand, that some people show.
I have no idea the pressure and stress involved in being an AFL footballer. I do know, however, that while it's possible to maintain a normal day-to-day life with a mental illness, that normality can very easily be swept away when the stress gets too much.
Personally, I've been lucky. I have wonderful support and understanding. My condition has seen me on the brink of destroying relationships, but I'm still here to tell the tale. The worst I've had it in the last five years is a month here and there of finding it almost impossible to go to work, or spending a day in bed sobbing. Some have found it much, much worse.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men aged 15-44, and the most common factor leading to suicide is a mental illness such as depression. Put simply, this is a real and deadly illness. It is not something to talked about flippantly and certainly not to be joked about. That is especially true if we are to encourage others to seek help.
It is incredibly heartening to see someone in the public eye seek help for a mental illness. Alex Fasolo should be, and has been, commended and applauded. The AFL as an industry has an excellent support network for its players and staff and it would seem that he is in good hands.
Fasolo, like Lance Franklin before him and Mitch Clark before him, are role models for others struggling with a mental illness. They show that it is ok to ask for help, to admit that you're not coping. The next step on the journey is to see that people who don't understand the reality of mental illness get educated so that when sufferers do decide to seek help they can do so without judgement.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact these services for help.
Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 www.mensline.org.au
SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263) www.sane.org
beyond blue support service line 1300 22 46 36
Black Dog Institute www.blackdoginstitute.com.au