Mental health honesty makes 'true role models'

CA's sports science chief Alex Kountouris hails players' willingness to speak up about mental health concerns as he details work behind the scenes

For all the celebration and adoration that accompanies on-field deeds of high-profile sports men and women, it's the ones that speak honestly and openly about mental health challenges who should be rightly elevated to the status of society's role models.

That's the considered view of Cricket Australia's Sports Science and Sports Medicine Manager Alex Kountouris who has detailed the work that's gone into identifying and addressing mental health and wellbeing among cricketers over the past five years.

Kountouris, who spent two decades on the international circuit as men's team physiotherapist with Sri Lanka and then Australia, said the most significant change he's seen in relation to mental health issues during that time is players' preparedness to speak up when they are struggling.

In recent weeks, three players involved or on the cusp of selection for Australia's men's team – Glenn Maxwell, Nic Maddinson and Will Pucovski – have revealed their battles with mental health and have stepped away from the game to deal with their respective issues.

Far from indicating a 'crisis' of mental health among elite-level cricketers, Kountouris said comprehensive data collected and analysed since the 2014-15 season indicates that cricketers are no more or less susceptible to mental health challenges than young adults in the broader community.

But he added that courage shown by the three Victoria teammates, as well as other current players such as Nicole Bolton and Moises Henriques who have opened up about their experiences over the past year, makes them hugely influential in setting an example to others.

"We genuinely think they are the real models," Kountouris told cricket.com.au today.

"I know we often portray sportspeople as role models for the way they perform on the field, but these three players – and the players before them, male and female – who have come out and spoken about it, I think we should be holding them up as role models.

"It's what society needs, to talk openly about it and break down some of the stigma associated with it.

"Hopefully it helps people in the wider community, particularly younger people, who are experiencing troubles to go out and talk about it.

"With the data that we've got, we're seeing that our players are no less or more vulnerable than anyone else in society.

"We're not calling it anything other than what it is – a part of life – and we've got to find ways to be preventative and manage it when it happens.

"This is not something that's come up in the last week.

"It's something we've been conscious of for a long time."

It was in the harrowing weeks that followed the death of Phillip Hughes in late 2014 that Cricket Australia forged a partnership with Melbourne-based Orygen mental health research group to gain a clearer picture of the stresses and concerns among the nation's foremost men's and women's players.

In conjunction with the Australian Cricketers' Association, a detailed survey (the results of which remain anonymous and are held by Orygen) was completed by a vast majority of national and state-contracted players during that summer.

The information collected provided a "snapshot" of mental health concerns, and the exercise was repeated during the winter of 2016 with the results broken down into sub-groups including age, gender and location to help better identify and understand the issues raised.

A third iteration of the exercise is currently near completion with around 90 per cent of contracted men's and women's players having already completed the latest survey, the results of which are expected to be available early next year.

Bolton opens up about mental health struggle

While the survey is available online, it is largely completed during face-to-face sessions conducted by representatives from CA, the ACA and Orygen and the current version includes additional questions aimed at enabling players to gain access to the services they want and need.

"The purpose of the survey is to give us a snapshot around mental health and wellbeing within our playing group, and to see how we're tracking compared to a couple of years ago," Kountouris said.

"And you get a bit of a comparison to population norms as well, for similar ages.

"What we've seen basically is that our players mirror the age-match population, meaning they experience similar rates of mental health and wellbeing issues as others of the same age in the broader community.

"There's undoubtedly elements that make them more or less vulnerable because they are athletes, but there's also commonalities in the pressures of life that none of us are immune to.

"It might be relationship issues, and maybe there's greater financial stresses or job dissatisfaction among people who aren't elite sportsmen and women.

"Everyone's got different triggers, and what's stressful for one person might not be stressful for someone else.

"Of course, there is the pressure that comes from scrutiny of athletes' performance, from social media – all those things can't be ignored.

"It will be interesting to see what we get when the results come in, but I don't think you need a survey to tell you all those pressures are part of it.

"In this year's survey, we've also asked the players about service providers, and what they prefer as a servicing model just to get their input about what they want and what works for them.

"Because unlike some of the other injuries and illnesses we see in sport, mental health can change quite a bit from person to person and within specific groups."

Among the initiatives being implemented in the wake of previous surveys and through associated player welfare strategies enacted across cricket is a greater provision for mental health services available to young players involved in state and national pathways programs.

In addition to increased resourcing to identify and address mental health issues among young players and extra research work being undertaken with Orygen, psychologists will be on site at pathways championship events to provide support and information.

"I think he's shown incredible bravery"

In addition, CA and the ACA will begin rolling out an education program for Australia's 300 or so men's and women's national and state-contracted players that will include a series of modules to develop greater awareness of mental health issues and literacy.

The program, which has been designed over the past year, will see players come together in groups around the nation (a major logistical exercise in itself given hectic playing schedules) to progress through the various stages of the education package.

It's the players' preparedness to engage with these initiatives, as well as their willingness to speak publicly about their challenges and put their mental health ahead of short-term playing aspirations, that represent the biggest shift in attitude Kountouris has witnessed in the past two decades.

"I think what's changed is that people are talking about it, more openly and honestly," he said.

Henriques claims inaugural community award

"There might be more scrutiny now, it's very hard to know exactly because it's difficult to keep stats on these indicators and data from twenty years ago is probably not going to be very accurate anyway.

"But what has improved is players' acceptance to talk about it, and to be open and honest about it.

"If they're struggling, they ask for help and then often make that public – that's what's changed."

If you or someone you know needs support, visit https://www.beyondblue.org.au/