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A short piece written by one of our players on the upcoming Mental Health Awareness Week in the VAFA.

Recently we’ve seen a lot of media coverage surrounding several AFL players who have been speaking openly about their battles with mental illness. Alex Fasolo from Collingwood, Travis Cloke from the Western Bulldogs and just last week, former number one draft pick Tom Boyd, these players have all taken leave from the game to concentrate on their mental health. GWS ruckman Tom Downie also retired from the game earlier this year at the age of 24 to seek treatment and concentrate on his mental health.

These high-profile examples just go to show that mental illness does not discriminate, just because somebody seemingly has abundant sporting ability, fame and fortune does not mean they are immune to mental illness. It can affect anybody at any time and we all probably know of somebody who has suffered from a mental illness such as depression, anxiety or any number of other disorders. Mental health issues are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and in many cases has nothing at all to do with external, physical, influences.

Statistically speaking 45% of Australians will suffer a mental illness at some stage of their lives with estimates that at any point in time 1 million Australians are living with depression and 2 million Australians are living with anxiety. These are frightening numbers and for too long this suffering has gone on behind closed doors and in private. For far too long there has been a stigma associated with mental illness whereby sufferers are afraid of being labelled as weak or soft by society. This can be especially prevalent in the macho surrounds of a football club where men are expected to be tough and strong. Thankfully times are changing and as shown by the number of elite players coming forward with their story, people are becoming more comfortable talking about mental illness and there is less of a stigma surrounding it.

Another AFL player to prematurely retire due to mental health issues is former Geelong midfielder Simon Hogan. Upon his retirement from AFL football Hogan founded the charity organisation Thick & Thin.  Thick & Thin aims to raise awareness of mental illness in the community and reduce the stigma surrounding it. The charity started in the VAFA where Hogan and fellow founder Scott Sherwen ply their trade for University Blacks and Old Scotch respectively. Thick & Thin works within the VAFA community which comprises over 12,000 young men as well as almost 2,000 young women.

Mental health issues have also touched Aquinas with several senior players opening up about their experience in recent years. This is in part due to the work of trailblazers like Hogan who make it okay for young men to speak about their feelings with their mates. It is also due to the culture of mutual respect that we have built at this club over the past few years. Mental health is no longer a taboo topic within our four walls, like it shouldn’t be outside our four walls.

However, it is evident that there will be players within our club who still do not feel comfortable asking for help or talking to a mate about what they’re going through. All players at Aquinas need to feel comfortable in asking for help if they are not okay. Rather than fear ridicule or embarrassment, which can be the biggest obstacle against speaking up, they should expect nothing but support, compassion and love from their teammates. All players that have spoken up in the past few years have been embraced in a mature and open way by the rest of the playing group and inner sanctum. After all, we are all in this together and we all want nothing but the best for each other. Remember, it is okay to say you’re not okay.

This weekend marks Thick & Thin Socks round, whereby all participating home teams within the VAFA will wear navy blue socks and all participating away teams will wear sky blue socks. As part of this week there will be several initiatives centred around creating awareness and making it easier to start conversations. One such initiative will be several Aquinas players speaking to the playing and coaching group at dinner on Thursday night about their own experience with mental illness and encouraging anybody who is struggling to reach out and ask for help.

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