Feature: Prevention is better than cure

What happened to Daniel Stewart (AFL) is NOT OK! Prevention is the key!

Gayelene Clews of Wired to Play, who also heads up our education team at here at Crossing the Line, unpacks the recent story of AFL player Daniel Stewart that appeared in the Canberra Times today (11/7/2016).

AFL, daniel stewart, depression, prevention

Unfortunately, Daniel’s story of despair post his athletic career is not an unusual one. Injuries, the loss of one’s playing career and the loss of a loved one through separation or divorce is destabilizing for anyone. Athletes are wired to be physically active and many are unknowingly moderating their mental health through sport and exercise. Their training balances important neurochemicals that help us feel calm and content in life. What is not okay is that any athlete has to go through the depths of depression, or feelings of suicide, because they have not been adequately prepared for life after sport.   

Encouraging people to talk about how they are coping is a long way behind being proactive about educating and preparing athletes well before injury, non-selection or retirement occurs.     

Let’s unpack Daniel’s story to try and help others in similar circumstances. In the article he says: “I felt like I had nothing. I lost my footy career … I couldn’t get a job, I broke up with my girlfriend” 

“I felt like I had nothing.”  Sport brings structure and identity into the lives of athletes. While their peers struggle to figure out who they are and where they belong in the world, the athlete knows.  Every day is structured with the next training session and the next competition.  They set goals and are highly motivated to achieve those goals. It brings passion, hard work and excitement into their everyday life.  Their brains are awash with the feel good neurochemicals dopamine and serotonin. Life feels great.  

“I lost my footy career”   It is important for an athlete to have other ways of defining who they are because sporting careers are very short.  If the only thing that makes them feel good is how well they played their last game, it is inevitable they will hit a crisis when the vehicle for that self-worth is taken away.

“I couldn’t get a job”  Athletes have to be prepared for life with a career pathway outside of sport that matches their values and skill set or else internal distress and confusion will result. In addition, if they stop playing abruptly, their dopamine and serotonin levels fall and it can feel like coming off recreational drugs.  Athletes need to remain engaged in some form of physical activity even when injured. This minimises this neural depletion, as low dopamine or serotonin levels can contribute to severe forms of depression.  

“I broke up with my girlfriend.”  Social support is incredibly important for mental health.  Losing this connectedness in a time of crisis has severe ramifications as it can substantially escalate the athlete’s grief response. They not only have lower levels of dopamine and serotonin but their “love neurochemical” oxytocin is also diminished.  When oxytocin is high it can help mitigate anxiety and depression.  Without their sport (athlete identity),  reduced physical activity through injury (dopamine and serotonin) and loss of social support (oxytocin), many athletes will find themselves in this desperate position.  

Education in this space is essential and having our athlete’s struggle through this alone, or without adequate education is not okay.  

Gayelene Clews, Wired to Play and Crossing the Line Education