The Wimmera Mail-Times

Supporting the vital role local sport clubs can play in looking after one another

Tom Boyd and Michael Vanderzalm, Senior Inspector at Traralgon, with WorkSafe's safe-tea break pack that encourages farmers to take a well-earned break.

Content in partnership with WorkSafe Victoria.

Former AFL football champion Tom Boyd has vivid memories of the many hours spent at his local footy club when he was growing up.

"My childhood was sitting in clubrooms with stinky footballers who'd played in the mud all day, and eating a pie and can of Coke when you could get both for about $2.50," said the one-time number one draft pick and 2016 Bulldogs premiership star.

"That was my childhood up until 13 or 15 when footy started to get more serious for me, and it was where I felt most comfortable. It was such a community - everyone wants the same thing, to play good footy, support each other and have a good time. It was what I missed most when I went to the big league."

Today Boyd no longer plays footy professionally but he's still involved in the sport in a different way. He's now helping to harness this sense of community and the powerful role grass-roots clubs can play in positive mental health.

Drawing on his own fight against mental health battles, Boyd is part of the Mental Health and Wellbeing program WorkSafe Victoria runs in partnership with AFL Victoria Country and Netball Victoria promoting the importance of mates supporting mates in regional and country areas.

"Real bonds get created in community sport and it's one of the things that a lot of people have missed the most over the last few years [with COVID]," Boyd said.

"There's that connection and being part of a community of people. There are enormous opportunities for clubs to continue to grow their ability to support each other, to support their players and their staff both physically and mentally."

One of the key messages Boyd is on a mission to share is that mental health issues can happen to anyone - even a young highly-talented footy player, one of the highest paid in the league who appeared to "have it all" - plus the importance of seeking help and support.

"The work we're doing is bringing forth that conversation about how do we support each other, how do we recognise when someone's having trouble and then how to get help," he said.

The statistics show the prevalence. One in five Australians are likely to be experiencing poor mental health at any given time; 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety in their lifetime.

Seeking help a turning point

Drafted into the AFL as an 18-year-old in 2013, starting pre-season just ten days after his final school exams, Boyd initially began experiencing serious issues with insomnia. Anxiety and depression followed.

"That was the first thing that popped up," he said. "I'd be in bed for hours with racing thoughts and trying to get a grip on what was happening the next day or what had happened the previous one."

"I became extremely fatigued, couldn't connect with people and, like a lot of people suffering from mental health challenges, I retreated from social situations. I had feelings I thought were restlessness and agitation but which I later learned were issues with anxiety, and then depression."

Spreading the message: Tom Boyd presenting in the footy clubrooms at Traralgon as part of the WorkSafe program.

After struggling with his problems for several years Boyd hit what he said was his lowest point in 2017, and finally made the vital phone call seeking help.

"Things got particularly bad. I went through a six-week period when I didn't sleep at all, I was having issues with my body, I couldn't hold a conversation," he said. "Thankfully I made the decision to call the psychologist and put a plan in place.

"I had always convinced myself that the way to overcome adversity was just to keep pushing on and keep working, but what I found was I didn't become a better or stronger person by doing that. You become resilient by accessing people who can help and guide you through difficult times."

As part of WorkSafe's program with Sport and Life Training in country football and netball clubs, teams can participate in sessions encouraging players to check-in on team-mates and colleagues, find out how they are going and find strategies to help if they are struggling.

WorkSafe Victoria CEO Colin Radford said supporting the mental health of Victorians remained one of its biggest challenges.

"'We're seeing the number of people with work-related mental health injuries increase every year - across all industries and sectors. They're costly - personally and financially - for everyone, and they can be hard to come back from," he said.

"We know community sport continues to be vital in our health and wellbeing - the competition and camaraderie of a Saturday arvo at the local club unites us and gives us a sense of community. It's this sense of community that make our partnership with AFL Vic Country and Netball Vic so valuable."

Let's look out for farmers

In country communities a key benefit of local clubs is their ability to help farming and rural families stay safer at work by providing an outlet - a time to take a "safe-tea" break - on the weekend.

"Farmers are among the most hard-working and know their land, livestock and machinery better than anyone, but that doesn't make them bulletproof," said Radford.

"Part of the WorkSafe program is about encouraging all farmers to take a well-earned break this season and prevent fatigue so they can get up and go again the next day."

Tom Boyd said he had learned through his experience that fatigue was not the same as just feeling tired. It's when you push your body beyond its limits, day after day. It impairs reaction times, and the ability to think clearly.

"I really struggled to concentrate," he said. "I remember vividly going to gym sessions, reading what I had to do but then a few sets later forgetting everything and having to go back and check - I was just that tired. I just ignored it and told everyone I was fine.

"But it was just like having a broken arm or a rolled ankle because the outcome was the same - I wasn't physically able to do my job, to play the sport that I'd loved since I was five years old."

WorkSafe's 2022 program with AFL Victoria and Netball Victoria includes hosting six Country Club games from Traralgon to Whitfield, Warrnambool and across to the state's south east.

Supporting mates: Tom Boyd at night training at the Traralgon Football Club.

If the events are on in your area, come along, have a cuppa and be part of the program's mission to encourage farmers to take time out from spending long hours on the land.

As well, WorkSafe is this year calling on all local clubs to show their support by nominating one of their farming members to go into the running to be named "Footy's Favourite Farmer". The winner and their club can win some great prizes. Head to countryclubhub.com.au to put your local farmer forward and keep up to date on the Country Club game locations.

Content in partnership with WorkSafe Victoria.