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'Shows incredible courage to talk about mental health'

Cricket Australia's head of sports science discusses how mental health is being addressed, breaking down sigmas and how players can seek help

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
In recent weeks three Australian cricketers - Glenn Maxwell, Nic Maddinson and Will Pucovski - have stepped away from the game to manage their mental health. ESPNcricinfo spoke to Cricket Australia's head of sports science, Alex Kountouris, about how mental health is being addressed, breaking down sigmas, how players can seek help and the systems in place to aid them.
What happens in terms of support for players?
There's quite an extensive support network across Australian cricket, so some of it is internal, Cricket Australia, the state and then there's external providers. Generally players have touch points with all three of those. Obviously friends and family, but there is quite a good support network and that's something we're happy and proud about.
What we've seen with the recent three players, and we've seen with other players over the last 12 months, male and female, is players being comfortable to talk about it and ask for help. There's two benefits to that, one the players get the support they need, but also we see them as role models for society, because hopefully they encourage others who are suffering in silence to come out and talk about it and get the help they need. It's great that they are talking about it so publicly and prepared to talk about it publicly, that others can benefit from it as well.
Has Australian cricket broken down the old school perception that to admit to mental health struggles is a weakness rather than a strength?
That's certainly an old way of looking at it, but we're trying to break those stigmas and barriers down, because it's the opposite. Someone shows incredible courage to come out and talk about something like this and I expect that it will help others, rather than having a negative effect. It's a really positive thing. Overall, while we don't want our players to have issues, it's a great thing that this group of players, and other players have come out and spoken about some of the struggles they're having openly. That can encourage others to talk about it and break down some of those stigmas we know have existed in the past.
What is CA doing to improve its understanding of mental health issues?
We've conducted a survey with the Orygen mental health group, they're a provider of mental health research and education services in the youth space. We did a survey with them in the 2014-15 season then we repeated is in 2016 in the off-season and compared results. Now we're in the tail end of completing a survey again of all our male and female players and we expect by February/March next year we'll have the results of that.
For us the real benefit is we get an idea of a comparison with our previous information we had, and we also get a comparison with our players with community norms as well, similar age groups. What we've seen in the past is our players are no more or less vulnerable to mental health and wellbeing issues, so we're just a mirror of society. There may be different factors associated with why elite players have mental health and wellbeing issues, but part of the survey is trying to understand that, trying to work out some of those triggers, and it's typically not one thing, it's typically a number of factors that could cause this.
How does the players' association link into the project?
It's all done in conjunction with the ACA, co-funding the project, we've looked at the survey questions together. Then together with the ACA we've got a wellbeing education program that's just about to kick off as well. That's been probably 12 months in the pipeline, and will be across all the different players in the state and CA system and they get education around mental health and wellbeing. Hopefully the players can pick up some of the skills and awareness they need to better understand this and pick it up earlier.
If you want to take a step even further than that, we're doing a research project with the Orygen group on our pathway players. That's happening next month, looking at our younger players that we haven't captured before, and try to understand some of the challenges there. We've also resourced our pathway championships with a full-time psychologist there.
Cricket's volume and frequency of travel is a unique challenge for players and staff. Can you use the networks that grow around teams to help anyone who is struggling get the support they need before they actually have to pull out of playing or coaching?
Travel's an interesting one, it's very individual how it affects people. But we've got pretty good support networks when our teams are on tour, so we've always got a doctor for all our tours, whether they're pathway tours or our men's and women's teams, or Australia A. Increasingly we've got our psychologist travelling with some of our teams as well as support. But it's just very individual, trying to offer what players need and pick things up early and offer the support they need.
It's also about looking ahead and seeing what the travel schedule is going to be like and trying to manage that. But travel is only one of many potential triggers. It's probably one that's more akin to elite athletes, one of a handful of things that might be more relevant for elite athletes, but there's other things that are common to everyone in society, things like relationships, stresses of work and the everyday stresses of life.
One thing that has been seen in the mental health area is that making face to face contact or picking up the phone to admit to needing mental health support or a break can be harder than sending a message, an email or putting the information into an app. Do the players have that option at the moment?
There's nothing specific, and I can't tell you how the recent players declared how they felt but it will be different for everyone. One of the things we do is expect players to log in wellness information every day on an app. On this app, which is common across elite sport, you say how sore you are, how fatigued you are, and one of the questions is how stressed you are and how you feel overall in your wellness.
That's tracked by each player's support network so we pick up things like that sometimes. So if you see a player hasn't slept well for three or four days or they've reported high levels of stress for two or three days, then someone will get in touch. It might be 'I've had a sore neck and I couldn't sleep properly' or it might be 'I'm really struggling with stress' and the right people will then follow that up. That might be the way players provide information, other will be happy just to talk about it.
We also have a monthly mental health and wellbeing screening tool that's available to players on an optional basis in our internal app. That again can be a way to flag something, even if players and support staff don't feel like they want to do the survey, we still encourage them to go through and look at the questions and reflect on the questions. If something resonates with them that's not quite right, speak to the right person.
If you look at the way cricket is evolving, and the increasing number of teams players play for, is that providing an additional challenge where in the past they maybe only had two or three team environments to move between at most?
Some players will be affected more or less by swapping teams and things like that. The challenge is making sure the support network is there and having the ability to talk to someone. As you move from one team to another, there's different support staff, different people, different levels of relationships between people and one of the things we like about the wellness information we collect is that can be done every day, no matter where you are. Someone could be in India playing in the IPL and they report they haven't slept well for three days and someone will get in touch and say 'what's the story'. It may just be jetlag and that's not a problem, or they'll tell you 'I'm really struggling' and that can start the conversation.
It does throw up a challenge, but we've got some things in place that we think can help us identify some of the tough periods and it comes back to the player's willingness to share that information doesn't it. If they're not telling us the information we don't have it. There are lots of different avenues for the player to report the information. But the work we're doing with the Orygen group will help us understand where we need to be putting our resources. It's all about educating the players about what to look for and what some of the stresses are, and really trying to better understand mental health and wellbeing.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig