The battle within - speaking up about mental health

In this episode of the On Side podcast, we talk about mental health, the impact and how we can make mental health and wellbeing a priority in sport. 

Speaking up about mental health

We are joined by former ABC sports broadcaster and mental health advocate, Craig Hamilton, and Georgia Ridler, Sport Integrity Australia's consulting Mental Health Advisor.



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    Podcast Intro: “Welcome to On Side, the official podcast of Sport Integrity Australia. Our mission is to protect the integrity of sport and the health and welfare of those who participate in Australian sport”. 

    Tim Gavel: Hello and welcome to On Side, I'm Tim Gavel. October is Mental Health Awareness Month, encouraging all of us to think about our mental health and wellbeing regardless of whether we may have a lived experience of mental illness or not. 

    It also gives us the opportunity to understand the importance of good mental health in our everyday lives and encourages help seeking behaviours when needed. Today we'll talk about mental health, the impact and how we can make mental health and wellbeing a priority in sport. 

    We'll be joined by a former ABC sports broadcaster and mental health advocate Craig Hamilton, and Georgia Riddler, Sport Integrity Australia's consulting Mental Health Advisor.



    Tim Gavel: Firstly, to Craig Hamilton, the former ABC sports broadcaster best known as a member of the grandstand rugby league commentary team, he's worked on Grand Finals, State of Origin series and a number of Test matches. 

    He's also one of Australia's leading mental health advocates, believes that good mental health and good physical health go hand in hand and are integral in achieving overall wellbeing. In sharing his story and experiences of living with bipolar disorder he's written two books and Craig offers hope and motivation to others.

    He's also got a documentary out at the moment portraying his journey with bipolar disorder. The film is called 'The Promise', and Craig joins us right now. Craig, it has been a fair journey, hasn't it?

    Craig Hamilton: Sure has, Tim. Good afternoon, it's been a long while I suppose in the making this documentary, but I've been, as you rightly say, on the scene of mental health advocacy for over 20 years now and it's something I'm very passionate about and I'll continue to be on that bandwagon because it's very important and I know I can make a difference in that area.

    Tim Gavel: One of your skills is a sports broadcaster I know from your time working with ABC, particularly on the sideline with the likes of David Morrow, Peter Wilkins, Warren Ryan, is your ability to plain speak and I guess as a former coal miner you came into sports broadcasting later in life, and I guess part of your gift is that you can explain things quite simply. Is that how you see it?

    Craig Hamilton: Yeah, I do. I think it was a real bonus for me coming into broadcasting late, in that I had some life experience and some other work background besides broadcasting. I'd grown up on a farm in the Hunter Valley, and I was milking cows when I was 15 years of age and did my high school there and then worked in a coal mine for 16 years, and by the back end of that coal mining career I had already started doing some part-time broadcasting, but I was very true to who I was from day one when I got behind a microphone. 

    I didn't want to change the way I spoke, I didn't want to change anything, and I'd done enough sport myself through my youth and through my teens and into my 20s and 30s that I knew the lingo, I knew how to describe sport and paint a picture, which is what we do in radio, of course. So that part of it came very easily to me and I certainly wasn't about to change anything.

    Tim Gavel: Part of your journey, of course, is 2000 and you were preparing for your dream job to be part of the ABC commentary team for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Tell us what happened then.

    Craig Hamilton: Well, in the first part of that year of 2000 leading into the Olympics, I got very depressed. I'd never been depressed before and it got to be very serious, it was a slow burn, if you like. 

    I started the year in January that year feeling just not well. I couldn't put my finger on what it was, I had some minor symptoms of not sleeping and not eating the way I would normally eat, my confidence levels were down, my concentration was impaired, all these little things were happening and then as time wore on, anxiety came into the picture and then I was stressed all the time and I had some negative thinking and this was going on for months and months, probably six months and I chose not to do anything about it, which was the biggest mistake I've made.

    I didn't talk to anyone about it, let alone go and get some help, and things got very serious, and I got to the point where I was really getting very despairing about the fact that I wasn't going to get better, and I wasn't going to recover from this, and it was actually just going to get worse.

    And I got to the point where I was suicidal, and from a point where I'd been just eight months before that was, literally everything in my life was good, and so it was a big shock to be in this place and then just on the eve of the Sydney Olympics side, I had got some treatment for depression. I've been put on some antidepressant medication but what that had done, underlying it all was a bipolar disorder that no one knew I had, and the antidepressant medication flipped the mood from a depression into a manic high, and that's what happened just on the eve of the Sydney Olympics, and I ended up hospitalised.

    Tim Gavel: Yes, and you didn't end up going, of course, to the Sydney Olympics as part of the ABC commentary team and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. How did that change your life?

    Craig Hamilton: Well, it changed my life significantly because I went into hospital with a manic episode and I came out of hospital with a diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder and therefore had been diagnosed at that point with a mental illness and it's described as a severe mental illness, it requires strict management. 

    It requires medication, that the medication was changed in hospital from an antidepressant to a mood stabilising medication just to keep the moods in the in the middle rather than depressed or manic and largely, not always, but largely across the last 20 years my health's been very good, but it changed the way I had to live my life and the choices I made, the decisions I made, around my lifestyle.

    I had to put priorities around sleep, I had to reduce the amount of alcohol I consumed, I had to eat better, I had to be conscious of a good work life balance, learn how to identify and moderate stress, all of those things had to be done and I read a lot about it, Tim. I was a sponge for information, and I needed to be because what I had was a very challenging illness, which if it was going to be managed properly it was going to take some work and thankfully, largely that's been the case and that's why I've been able to advocate, it's been because I've been well most of the time.

    Tim Gavel: Yes. You've written two books, you've got the film portraying your life at the moment 'The Promise', I guess part of it is that there has been this stigma about mental health and about talking about it, what you're trying to do is start a conversation to get people talking about it so that we can prevent so many suicides that we have at the moment. 

    In fact, it's what, twice the number of road deaths in Australia, people committing suicide. So, what you're trying to do is start a conversation as part of the prevention process.

    Craig Hamilton: We'll not only start a conversation, it's more than that in this documentary that we've got out now called 'The Promise', it's because my view, and it's been this way for a long time, there's a lot of awareness out now in the community, there's a lot of information, we've had a lot of education around mental illness and around the potential for suicide.

    The suicide rate is double the road toll every year in this country, on average there'll be 9 suicides in Australia today, so the numbers are horrific in many ways. This documentary, it's a call to action and because we do want to make a difference in the suicide prevention area, that's the point of difference.

    And to make The Promise, I don't want to give the whole thing away, I want you to go and see the documentary Tim, is to make a commitment, to actually make a commitment to those around you or to a friend, to a family member, to a work colleague, to a health professional, that you will seek help, you will talk about something, you will reach out, and you make a promise, you make a promise to do it. So, when you make that commitment, I think there's some power in that and that's the premise of the documentary.

    Tim Gavel: And part of it too is, Craig, correct me if I'm wrong, but part of what you're trying to do is change the way that people perceive mental illness outside the family, I guess, and outside in the workplace. You want to change things in terms of perception.

    Craig Hamilton: Yeah, I do. Absolutely. I think there's been a view for a long time that someone who has a mental illness can't function, that someone who has a mental illness is unproductive, is going to be put on the shelf, unemployable, too difficult to manage, basically a basket case. 

    That has been the view for a long time and I think telling my story and other people who have a profile and who are successful and who are able to manage an illness and continue on and flourish in life is important because people can see that and realise 'Well, look, I have bipolar disorder', and 'He's got bipolar disorder', and there's a degree of hope and encouragement and inspiration that comes from that and I think that's the thing that is important because we're talking here about a tricky illness.

    I mean, it's a difficult illness to manage and there are a lot of things that can be done too, from a lifestyle point of view rather than just medication. Medication is very important, but from a lifestyle point of view, these things all make a difference, they make a huge difference to somebody's wellbeing and exercise is in there as part of it as well. You don't have to train like an Olympic athlete, but you do need to move. You need to do something. Physical health and mental health really do go hand in hand.

    Tim Gavel: Just on that, in terms of sport, because we look at sports people and we think well, 'Superhuman, capable of doing anything', but there are frailties there and what you've been able to do is get sportspeople to talk about this subject, which isn't often talked about in sport because it is seen as a weakness. How have you been able to do that?

    Craig Hamilton: I think the more stories that are told makes it easier for others to actually share their stories. I think that's a big part of it because the secrecy has not worked, the stigma has been counterproductive where people have been too embarrassed to speak, they've been ashamed to speak and I look, I was in that situation as well. I didn't want anybody to know about my story very early in the piece, I didn't want anyone to know that I'd had acute depression. 

    I didn't want anyone to know I'd had a manic episode or ended up in a psychiatric hospital or been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, I wanted no one to know, for all the reasons that so many people and men particularly don't get help because it is that stigma across many, many centuries.

    Not in the last 10 years or 20 years or 50 years, it's been going on forever, so I think the more people who are prepared to speak, and there are a lot of high-profile Australian sportsmen and women who have now spoken out openly about their battles. Andrew Johns is a classic case; Andrew has bipolar disorder.

    Wally Lewis has spoken about his battles with depression. Nathan Thompson, who's a very good AFL player number of years ago, has spoken now. Wayne Schwass is another one from AFL. These examples prove that it doesn't matter how successful you are, doesn't matter how good you are, your ability has got nothing to do with it, you can suffer the same debilitating mental health problems as anybody else.

    Tim Gavel: And you have some high-profile support in your quest to make it part of the everyday conversation, to break down barriers, et cetera, particularly on the sports field but what happens is, I guess people listen to high profile people in sport, probably more than they would do if a doctor or whatever was talking to them. 

    So, you've got people like Wayne Bennett, Paul Harrigan, Tim Tszyu, Joe Williams, as part of this film 'The Promise'. How important was it do you think to have sports people talking to the general community so that it breaks down the barriers and people listen to them?

    Craig Hamilton: Well, I think incredibly important. The documentary is broken down into three, I suppose, it's a multilayered documentary and it's 62 minutes long, so it's not something you go to the cinema, and you watch for 2 and a half hours. It's a pretty compact, in your face 62-minute documentary, but yeah, we have Wayne Bennett in it, we have Tim Tszyu in it, Joe Williams is in there, Paul Harrigan. 

    Now what I think is the key for those people, and Jessica Rowe is in there as well, media personality, all well-known Australians, the fact that they're able to speak and articulate the issues around mental health with people that they have known and Wayne has coached players that have had mental health issues, Joe Williams speaks openly about his own challenges, Tim Tszyu, we went to his gym in Rockdale in Sydney and spoke to him and he told us about the people who come into the gym and he said you can just see that they are drained, that they are flat, that they are low and they are using boxing when they train there as a way to lift their mood and that's the link between physical and mental health. 

    Now they've all spoken, OK, and they were all very generous with their time. I remember ringing Wayne Bennett just out of the blue and I've known Wayne for 25 years, I just rang him one day and I said 'Look, I'm making this documentary. It's on mental health. Will you be involved? Will you be interviewed?' and he said straight away 'Yes'. He didn't even need to think about it. 

    And then of course, there's the personal stories which, really sort of closed out the documentary where people talk about family members who have been lost to suicide. So, I think you're getting, and you've got my story in there as well so it's hopefully going to touch people in many ways.

    Tim Gavel: Just as a final question to people listening to this, how do you recognise people with a problem? How can you help do you think?

    Craig Hamilton: Well, that's a very difficult question to answer because we're talking about a complex subject here. If it was easy to identify mental health problems, and if it was easy for people who had mental health problems to identify them within themselves and go and get some help then half the problem would be dealt with there and then. Then you'd be dealing with actually managing the condition. 

    But I think the more stories that are told, you can see there are symptoms and I touched on those. There's social withdrawal, there is concentration issues, sleep problems, your confidence is down, your appetite is affected, you have stress, you have anxiety all these things are indicative of a problem in the mental health area that needs to be addressed. 

    And then for someone who's looking at a friend or a family member and going 'Well hang on, they're a bit more withdrawn than they normally are', they might be self-medicating more than normal, when I say self-medicating I mean using more drugs, more alcohol or they might be regular users of drugs and alcohol, that can often be the sign that moods are needing to be, I suppose managed and that's the thing, they're all, it's very subtle Tim. 

    It can be very subtle, but I think the more education we have, we can actually paint a picture and people can go 'Well yeah, that might be me' or 'That might be a family member', 'That might be a friend' or 'That might be a work colleague'.

    Tim Gavel: Absolutely right. Craig, it's been great to have a chat, all the best with the film and thanks very much for the work that you do in the community.

    Craig Hamilton: Good on you, Tim. I appreciate your support.



    Tim Gavel: Welcome back to On Side. Joining us now is Georgia Ridler Sport Integrity Australia's consulting Mental Health Advisor and Georgia has been a leader in mental health in sport over the past 20 years and was the Olympic psychologist for the Tokyo 2020 Games, and Georgia's role at Sport Integrity Australia is to provide expert advice and a mental health lens on staff development and support, as well as review and advise on current processes and guidelines that pertain to integrity and doping violations. Georgia, welcome to On Side. 

    Do you think there has been a change in how we talk about mental health? Is it far more open now, expressing that we might have a problem?

    Georgia Ridler: Absolutely. I think the conversation is certainly open and people may not be getting it perfect yet, we're all human, but I think it's a more open conversation for athletes and staff which is fantastic, and I think it will only become more open as we go.

    Tim Gavel: Yes, because in sports sometimes it is seen as a weakness and I guess we're trying to overcome that barrier, aren't we? And change the conversation so that it's seen as a form of strength to actually talk about it?

    Georgia Ridler: Absolutely. Plus, I think people are really beginning to accept and acknowledge that athletes are humans first, people first and athletes second. And so, we really need to focus on the human and their wellbeing and an athlete who is well typically performs well. So, we really need to bear that in mind.

    Tim Gavel: Tell us about your background as well as your role here at Sport Integrity Australia.

    Georgia Ridler: Yeah, sure. So, I've been a sports psychologist in the Olympic sports for the past 20-25 years, across about four or five Olympics cycles. I've worked with Australian Cycling, was my first big gig, moving then onto Australian Women's Water Polo Team and then on to the Australian Swim Team for six years looking at culture and legacy pieces around culture development.

    Tim Gavel: How important is it, do you think the culture development aspect of sport? Because it seems to be so important these days to get the culture right so there is support for everybody within a sporting team.

    Georgia Ridler: Absolutely. And look, we've been talking about that a little bit in Sport integrity Australia as well, looking at self-care versus group-care and group-care is around the need for a culture to embrace the concept of wellbeing and work together to enhance each other's wellbeing which then enhances people's performance and enhances individual wellbeing, which is a real benefit. 

    So, I always say that our culture reflects the wellbeing which reflects people's ability to perform, and they all integrate together.

    Tim Gavel: Do you think though, that sometimes those values go out the window when you're at the start line and you're competing for a gold medal, where certainly that win at all costs mentality infiltrates the good part of your brain and that culture that you're talking about goes out the window?

    Georgia Ridler: Look, it can happen it, it certainly can happen. But look, if culture is built well and there is a strong focus on wellbeing, then typically the work is done, particularly for if we're focusing on an athlete. 

    Typically, it means that the wellbeing's being focused on, looked after, the person feels very supported and that means that then when they go into those high-performance environments, high pressure moments, they don't have to worry about culture, people behind them support, anything like that, they can actually just focus on performing in the moment and that's the ideal situation.

    Tim Gavel: Yes, because there are many contributors aren't there to mental health issues? Whether it being anxiety from being away from home, travel, other people in your team, expectations, injuries, concussion, so there are a lot of things you've got to deal with as a sports person, and sometimes you just want to focus on performing well.

    Georgia Ridler: Absolutely. And look, that's always the trick of being a high performing athlete at the top. It's a matter of being able to put all of the things into place before that moment of performance, and then be able to just focus on what's necessary, and that takes practice, that takes organisation, that takes usually a bit of coaching from a range of different people to be able to have systems in place to be able to perform at your best.

    Tim Gavel: There are conflicting values to a certain degree though, aren't there? Because on one hand you've got the expectation that you have of people around you and there might be higher expectations from others, talking about gold medal tallies, et cetera, so there are to a certain degree, conflicting mindsets when it comes to sport. 

    How do you manage something like that?

    Georgia Ridler: Yeah, it's a really good point. And look, I think something that we've been talking about a lot in sport over probably the last 5 to 10 years now is around the concept that high performance sport brings with it a range of different experiences that are not always pleasant, actually quite uncomfortable most of the time and when an athlete can get into a position where they understand and acknowledge and accept that the environment is what the environment is, then there's a greater chance they can move through that and actually focus on performance. 

    So it really is about accepting that the high performance environment is full of distractions and noise and pressures and all of these things and these emotional and physiological reactions that we have and actually that's normal for high performance, and the sooner athletes can move to a position where they accept that's normal and can stop trying to fight against all of these distractions but just let it be and still focus on what they're there for, the greater chance to have success.

    Tim Gavel: Well, this current generation is dealing with far more distractions than it used to be the case because back in the old days we used to be worried about having your parents' tickets or the family pressure or media expectations, supporters' expectations, now you're dealing with gamblers who are betting on your sporting events, you've also got social media pressures amongst others. 

    So, it's almost overwhelming at times, I would imagine for a young person coming through at an elite level playing sport.

    Georgia Ridler: Yeah. Look, for our younger people it is quite overwhelming, and we do often work with them to think through 'What are all of those distractions? And out of those distractions, what's in my control?', because some of them are within our control and 'What's well and truly outside my control?' And those athletes that focus their time and energy on the things that are outside of their control get completely distracted and often don't perform at their best. So, the key is to really be focused on 'What is within my control?' and stay focused on that and be able to then execute under pressure.

    Tim Gavel: And build resilience too, because athletes need to be bulletproof or appear to be bulletproof anyway in competition and really focused and totally focused on what they're doing, their mindset has to be 100 percent. How do you build that resistance? Do you do scenario testing with athletes at all?

    Georgia Ridler: Yeah. Look across a range of sports, we do, do, like what we'd call 'What if scenarios'. So 'What if this happened?' or, and we don't just talk about it, but sometimes even on camps we'll actually reenact it or put it into play. The bus is broken down, we are a 15-minute walk still to the Olympic Village, your race starts in 35 minutes, what do you do? 

    So, we talk about a range of those things to think through what's plan A, plan B, and so that it's actually familiar in case the situation happens. And from my experience of being at an Olympics, anything and everything can happen and does happen, and so those athletes who are more resilient, who are able to pivot or adapt or be flexible often find that they can move through and just accept that this is part of an Olympic Games and then return their focus to what they're here for.

    Tim Gavel: Yes. I remember watching sporting teams preparing for the Olympics with loudspeakers at the side of their grounds with opposition crowd support blaring in the speakers to try and put the players off even though they're in the middle of nowhere, as a scenario.

    Georgia Ridler: Yes. Yeah look, and lots of those scenarios have been used over time absolutely, but as well, resilience building doesn't start at the end, at that podium level, it really starts right back at the beginning. It starts with parents, it starts with junior and development coaches just creating opportunities for kids to have to build resilience and some of those things are about saying no or delayed gratification and all those little things that incrementally build resilience over time and honestly, have a have a significant impact down the track.

    Tim Gavel: A lot of athletes do have an obsessive personality, so they'll want to overtrain, they want to possibly go that one step that they believe their opposition isn't doing. How do you manage something like that? Because that can lead, I would imagine, to mental health issues when those expectations aren't met.

    Georgia Ridler: Yeah look, it can be mental health and also physical health. I know the physios nowadays are putting a lot of focus on training load, like the physical training load and trying to manage athletes' expectations of what they can and can't do. I think what's come to the forefront the last probably five or six years has been around athlete recovery and that recovery is actually having a more significant impact on athletes’ ability to maintain or enhance strength and maintain or enhance skills. 

    So, there's a big focus now on sleep and downtime and using that effectively to, yeah to maximise recovery.

    Tim Gavel: Just to wrap it up, it sounds like the real focus here is on the simple things. Forget about the complications, just focus on what you can control.

    Georgia Ridler: That's absolutely right, and I think sometimes the simple things are easier to focus on, we get them right and then those little one-percenters add up over time and before you know it, you're at the 100 percent.

    Tim Gavel: Yes. We tend to over complicate things these days too. Georgia, thanks very much for joining us on On Side, it's been great.

    Georgia Ridler: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. See you.



    Tim Gavel: That was Georgia Ridler, Sport Integrity Australia's consulting Mental Health Advisor. Where the conversation goes will depend largely on what you say, it's important to look after your mental health and wellbeing and seek support if you need it. 

    If this podcast has triggered you in any way, or if you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 000, visit your nearest hospital emergency or call a crisis helpline. You can call Lifeline on 131114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636

    Well thanks for joining On Side, we'll have another episode shortly.

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