Blowing the whistle on stigma

June 13, 2018

Former AFL player Heath Black will be guest speaking at the Men’s Health Night in Numurkah on Friday June 15. Photo: Ray Sizer

Elite athletes, professional footballers and he-men don’t cry.

Because real men never do. Why would they? They know most men want to be just like them.

And footballers — powerful, focused and the best of the best — certainly don’t have mental health issues.

At least not when Heath Black was tearing up opposition defences with his speed and raking left foot coming off the wing for Fremantle and St Kilda.

But eventually he knew something was wrong. He just had no idea what, or how to deal with it.

No-one had suspected it, so no-one had tested for it.

Black would eventually be diagnosed, when he was 30, with bipolar II and adult ADHD.

It was a diagnosis not made until he had chewed up the end of his 192-game career; blown a massive sponsorship with a health drink brand, burnt a relationship, assaulted a female police officer and racked up drink-driving convictions as he descended into alcoholism.

As it is with too many, booze was Black’s self-medication, his way of blotting it all out, numbing the pain and confusion.

‘‘I took myself off the street and drank just to take away that emotional pain and escape reality ... it was a slippery slope,’’ Black said of his mental and personal collapse.

Incredibly, beyond anything he achieved on the football field, Black (with a lot of support) saved himself.

His reincarnation will be in Numurkah on Friday night to share his story, because the last thing he wants to see is another man, any man, suffer in silence, trapped by the stigma of mental health.

In many ways it has become a crusade for the now 39-year-old.

And he’s not just dabbling around the edges, living off past glories for a few sports nights.

Rather than purely using his personal experiences as a tool to teach, Black has immersed himself in the mental health space.

First he studied mental health first aid and men’s behaviour, before stepping up to a suicide intervention course.

Ongoing studies have enabled him to be a facilitator and actually write programs for sporting organisations and large business corporations.

His first role after he came out the other side was with the Suicide Prevention Strategy for the West Australian Government.

The job took him to almost every rural town in the state locked into the millennium drought.

‘‘That was quite confronting, to see the impact the drought was having on the wheat growers over there,’’ Black said.

After tinkering with coaching in Western Australia, he eventually returned home to Melbourne where he is now flat out as a stay-at-home dad of three, with number four on the way.

Black’s highly publicised fall from grace, the guilty pleas and the shambles his life became is now a world away from the public perception of mental health.

He was one of the first marquee players to go public with their own mental health problems.

Along with Wayne Schwass and Nathan Thompson, Black was in an exclusive club — supermen with issues.

‘‘Way back in 2008 there weren’t too many of us,’’ he said.

‘‘I suppose I was one of the first ones that was qualified and went and studied in the area and that’s a little point of difference that has allowed me to go into the corporate sector and have a look at mental health programs.’’

Black’s visit to Numurkah comes at an interesting time, with mental health in sport firmly back in the spotlight following former Brisbane Lions captain Dayne Beams’ admission he had been battling depression since his father’s death.

Beams not only bared his soul to his teammates, he publicly surrendered the leadership of his team because he knew he could not fulfil the role this year in his current condition and while he was in counselling.

Black said he hoped and believed the wheel was slowly starting to turn in regards to the wall of silence surrounding mental health in sport and society.

But he is just as adamant it is only a small first step, with many underlying issues to still be addressed.

‘‘We are definitely getting better as a society talking about depression and anxiety and those sorts of thing,’’ he said.

‘‘However, I still think there is an underlying secret behind eating disorders, body image and self-harm within team environments.

‘‘I reckon we still have a long way to go in those domains.’’

If Black was an accidental pioneer in terms of opening up on his personal struggles, he believes the vulnerability and honesty displayed by megastar Lance Franklin helped to transform perceptions about mental health around the entire country.

‘‘I reckon when Buddy put his hand up, that really sang true with the population,’’ he said.

‘‘Education in schools about the issue is now great and I’ve noticed a big difference on the ground.’’

Because of the journey he took through his own hell and the education which came after it, Black understands better than most how different variables such as domestic and socio-economic status can impact on people’s mental welfare.

His determination as an R U OK? ambassador to lend his experience and his advice to people in rural towns experiencing some kind of hardship is the key reason he will be in Numurkah on Friday.

‘‘People in rural towns are certainly battling more factors. Resources can often be limited and there are huge costs associated with seeing a psychologist once every fortnight,’’ Black said.

‘‘It’s different in all areas, but resources, location and the stigma of being a big, tough farmer carry a fair bit of weight.

‘‘When you’re linking rural towns with ice epidemics, which can also tie in with mental health and anti-social behaviour, there are still a lot of issues out here in my view and a lot of it gets swept under the carpet within small communities from what I’ve seen.’’

Black wants not just men but everyone to speak out when confronted with a mental health illness. His advocacy in this arena is fierce — glimmers of that tearaway athlete still shine through.

As part of his crusade against suffering in silence, Black is a regular on the speaking circuit, maximising his football frequent flyer miles with his now formally trained awareness of the scale of the problem — and Numurkah is next on his agenda.

He will be joined by local health professionals at the men’s health night ‘It’s Time For Your Health Pit Stop’ on Friday from 6pm to 10pm at Numurkah Town Hall.

Entry is free and you have nothing to lose by going. Except maybe your mental health.

It could even save your life, or the life of a mate you have encouraged to go with you.

Just ask Heath Black. He can tell you about a life almost, but not quite, lost.

—Patrick Tansey

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