Australian Footballers Square Off Against Stigma Around Mental Illness

Athletes, coaches, and researchers Down Under are teaming up to launch an online initiative to encourage men to talk openly with one another about mental health issues.

The hardened players of Australia’s rough-and-tumble variant on football want to tackle a different sort of challenge: the stigma surrounding mental illness.

The Australian Football League Players’ Association (AFL Players’ Association) recently partnered with researchers at La Trobe University, the AFL Coaches Association, and other groups to foster dialogue about mental health. Known as “Better Out Than In,” the internet-based campaign is aimed at men in particular.

“The project is based on the premise that sharing and hearing real-life stories is one of the most powerful ways of reducing self-stigma in communities of men,” said Sports Psychologist Paul O’Halloran in a statement. “It aims to send the message that asking for help is a sign of courage rather than weakness.”

The online platform features videos of men talking about their experience with mental illness as well as links to support strategies and services. One major goal is to help men talk to friends who are showing signs of having difficulties. Early contributors include John Longmire, coach of the AFL’s Sydney Swans, who in a short video discusses the importance of men talking about their feelings.

AFL Players’ Association CEO Paul Marsh told Sydney Swans Media he is excited for what the new platform will do in normalizing depression and, more broadly, mental illness.

“Hearing stories from the likes of AFL players, AFL coaches, and everyday construction workers about dealing with mental illness will do a lot to break down the stereotypes often attached to mental illness,” Marsh said. “Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, so we need to do everything we can to normalize conversation around it to encourage those affected to speak up to those close to them and ask for assistance.”

AFL’s initiative, though, is not an outlier. Organizations around the globe have begun undertaking efforts to highlight mental health issues. Earlier this year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association released a new set of guidelines for dealing with mental health issues of student athletes.

In 2015, star NFL running back Arian Foster also teamed up with fellow player Brandon Marshall’s PROJECT 375—a nonprofit similarly geared toward destigmatizing mental illness—after coming to terms with his illness. Foster publicly discussed his problem with substance abuse and subsequent treatment, while Marshall has opened up about his 2011 borderline personality diagnosis.

Other well-known players have struggled with mental illness. Super Bowl veteran Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012 with doctors later determining he suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated head injuries. Many of his former colleagues also have fought depression, isolation, and anxiety.

Back in Australia, researchers with La Trobe University say they plan on eventually evaluating the effectiveness of “Better Out Than In.”

Jake Edwards, a former AFL football star who struggled with mental health issues, shown in a clip for the “Better Out Than In" campaign. (YouTube screenshot)

Derrick Perkins

By Derrick Perkins

Derrick Perkins is an associate editor at Associations Now. In his career as a reporter, editor, and photographer, he has covered communities in New England and Virginia as well as the Defense Department. MORE

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