Australian Sports Stars Put the Spotlight on Mental Health
Mental health and sport.
As the societal conversation around mental health has continued to progress, its implications have been felt massively in the sporting world. In an industry where external scrutiny, pressure and performance are at their most extreme, mental strength is now being given as much weight as its physical counterpart.
But for so long, the general population have put athletes on a pedestal, forgetting that underneath the perceived glamour of elite sport there is often a great mental toll that goes unseen.
Over the past decade a growing number of current and former athletes have started to share their personal stories of mental health struggle both on and off the field. This has helped to normalise putting mental health and wellbeing at the forefront, and proved an inspiring and insightful lesson to leagues of loyal fans who might not otherwise understand the pressures of elite sport.
For this blog, Pickstar has compiled a list of a few Australian athletes who have spoken out about their own battles with mental illness. Through their displays of vulnerability, these stars have shown as much courage and strength as any on-field act of bravery ever could.
Drafted by North Melbourne in 2010, Majak Daw became the first Sudanese-Australian to ever play in the AFL when he debuted against the Brisbane Lions in 2013. After struggling to establish himself in the senior side, in 2018 Daw enjoyed a move to the backline where he starred in a breakout year. But underneath this triumph was a great pain that went untold.
After struggling with alcohol and racial abuse, relationship turmoil and the overwhelming news that he was to become a father, a suicide attempt in late 2018 left Daw with severe injuries to his lower body, including two broken hips and broken pelvis. However, the football world rallied around Daw, who was able to rebuild himself mentally and physically and find a new lease on life as a new dad.
Nearly three years after the incident, Daw’s incredible rehab and training journey led to him making his AFL return for North Melbourne in Round 9 vs. the Crows, and the image of Daw’s beaming smile while celebrating with his teammates after kicking his first goal back is truly unforgettable. Daw’s return coincided with the release of his autobiography titled ‘Majak’, which tells his powerful story of triumph and despair, and highlights the importance of reaching out for help in times of anguish.
One of Australia’s most successful athletes, Sharni Norder (née Layton) has done it all. A winner of multiple ANZ Championships, a Commonwealth Games gold medal, and captain of the Australian Diamonds, Norder’s incredible achievements and drive throughout her career masked a gradually deteriorating mental health.
In a decision that surprised many, Norder stepped away from netball for six months in 2017 to combat a career's worth of anxiety and exhaustion. After years of pushing her body to its limits in a sport she has claimed to never truly love, Norder was at her breaking point. This public display of self-care served as an invaluable reminder of the need to prioritise mental wellbeing over financial or career success.
In 2018 after her time off, Norder realised a lifelong passion for footy by switching codes and joining the Collingwood Magpies in the AFLW. She has since retired and become a popular media personality in both radio and television, and her candid, funny and insightful biography ‘No Apologies’ released in 2021 details how she was able to reconnect with herself after years of being a slave to the perfectionism of elite sport.
Growing up in the rural township of Ivanhoe, New South Wales, Joel Thompson wasn’t afforded the luxury of a stable home-life that so many take for granted. At 18, Thompson decided to pursue his dream of playing professional footy, and his dream came true when he was signed by the Canberra Raiders in 2008.
However, throughout much of his career, Thompson, like so many others, put on the mask of a happy-go-lucky person at home for his wife and at the club for his teammates. Having never been taught how to articulate his feelings, Thompson’s struggle with depression could have ended tragically were it not for his wife’s suggestion to see a psychologist.
This breakthrough moment changed Thompson’s life, and led him to discover his passion for encouraging others to seek help, breaking down the stigma that surrounds the issue of mental health in society and the rugby league community. By sharing his story, Thompson’s work through the NRL’s ‘State of Mind’ program continues to teach people to put their hand up and speak out when they're in need, a lesson that saved Thompson’s life all those years ago.
Already a national champion at the age of 21, Morgan Mitchell was touted as the ‘next Cathy Freeman’ in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics. But after unsuccessful campaigns in Rio and the World Championships in London 2017, all the expectations, gruelling training regiments, and self-criticism became too much.
Mitchell has since bravely spoken about her struggles with eating disorders and body image issues, alcohol abuse, depression and anxiety while preparing for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, to the point where she was ready to quit athletics altogether. Having parted ways with her then coach and clearly struggling, Mitchell was referred to the acclaimed high performance mindfulness coach Emma Murray, who helped to completely turn her thought process around.
Mitchell was able to gain greater clarity on her life, including her diet, family, and most importantly her ability to value her mental health as the foundation of all her success, both on and off the track. Mitchell’s courage in confronting her demons allowed her to grow as a person and an athlete, and is a reminder of the importance of mental clarity and development no matter what your circumstance.
Former AFL footballer Tom Boyd has lived a life of high expectations. Growing up in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Tom quickly rose to recognition as one of the top young athletes in Australia before being selected by the Greater Western Sydney Giants with the first pick in the 2013 AFL Draft.
After a difficult first season with the Giants, Boyd moved back to Melbourne to play with the Western Bulldogs with what was at the time one of the biggest contracts in AFL history. Overcoming the injuries that plagued his young career, in 2016 Boyd achieved every footballer's dream. In a career best game, Boyd dominated with 3 goals and 8 marks, immortalising himself in Bulldogs folklore and helping secure the club’s first premiership in 62 years.
However, in the later stages of his career, Boyd would continue to struggle with injury and mental health, taking a leave of absence from the Bulldogs after being diagnosed with clinical depression. Retiring with two years left of a lucrative two-million dollar deal, Boyd showed immense courage by choosing to prioritise his mental health. Now serving as a mental health advocate, Boyd dedicates his time to providing powerful talks about his experience at the pinnacle of Australian sport, and the importance of being brave enough to seek help.
As an Olympic champion and Sport Australia Hall of Fame inductee, swimming golden girl Libby Trickett knows the dizzying peaks of professional sport. However, it was her brave and inspiring memoir 'Beneath the Surface' published in 2019 that shed light on the private mental health battles that were so neatly masked by her incredible accolades.
Forced to retire due to a wrist injury in 2013, Trickett’s abrupt exit from the world of elite sport left her in an unfamiliar situation away from the safety of the pool, an all too common narrative for retiring athletes. The sudden doubt and uncertainty saw the culmination of over a decade of suppressed anxieties and sadness begin to overwhelm Trickett, and a difficult battle with postnatal depression after the birth of her first daughter compounded these intense feelings.
The decision to reach out for help was a turning point in Trickett’s life, with the relief and clarity provided from speaking up allowing her to begin cherishing motherhood and life post-retirement.
A member of North Melbourne’s premiership winning side in 1996, AFL legend Wayne Schwass played 282 games for both North Melbourne and Sydney, dominating the league off the wing for over a decade.
However, in 2006, four years after his retirement, Schwass revealed that he had struggled with depression during his highly successful career, setting up the ‘The Sunrise Foundation’ in order to help other athletes struggling with their mental health.
In 2017, Schwass shared a photo of himself on Twitter celebrating after receiving his 1996 Premiership medallion, stating ‘This is what suicidal looks like.’ The powerful image underscored the way that people often mask their suffering, with Schwass describing his fake smile as a cover for his feelings of isolation throughout his playing career.
More recently, Schwass founded ‘PukaUp’, an educational foundation that exists to achieve its aim of ending suicide, and It’s work has helped bridge the disconnect between understanding the importance of mental health, and proactively taking steps to stay well.
For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
For confidential support about eating disorders and body image issues you can free call the Butterfly Foundation National Hotline on 1800 33 4673.
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