“I didn’t recognise Tomi for hours, which was terrible,” Johnston said. He spoke at length about his issues, including mental health and some substance abuse, to the AFLPA website in a frank video.
The significant rise in the use of psychologists or psychiatrists during 2019 was consistent across AFL men and women players, past and present, and those 2853 consultations with experts did not include the counselling players received from psychologists or psychiatrists employed by their clubs.
The AFLPA has had several prominent current and former players detail their mental health battles in their “Courageous Conversations” campaign, produced jointly with Movember, during which Johnston and fellow ex-players Boyd, Justin Koschitzke and Matthew Lobbe shared their struggles along with Beams and fellow Magpie Taylor Adams.
The AFLPA’s Ben Smith said the number of players seeking professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist has increased every year over the past four years.
There was a further increase up until the end of March this year before the COVID-19 shutdown of the game, during which clubs and the players’ union have focused further on the impact of isolation on the mental wellbeing of players. None of those who used the 200 experts via the AFLPA did so to improve on-field performance.
It is difficult for the AFL and the players’ union to measure how much of this major increase in seeking help is due to greater pressures on players, or if it is due to the far greater awareness of mental health – which include depression and anxiety – in football.
There is a belief – backed by mental health experts – that players speaking out about their problems invariably makes it easier for others to seek professional help, while the issues that confronted North Melbourne defender Majak Daw also heightened awareness, as did the death of beloved St Kilda great and ex-Richmond coach Danny Frawley.
Boyd’s premature retirement from the game last year, when he walked away from a huge amount of money, has highlighted footballers’ struggles.
While the number of past players using the mental health network of experts is perhaps surprising, the AFLPA points out there are 4000 ex-players who are union members, compared to more than 800 current male and more than 400 AFLW players currently on club lists.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.