Clubs are often institutions that knit communities together. They provide a meeting place and connect people through shared interests and values. They can also serve as an accessible hub for community wellbeing initiatives, and a means of reaching people who need support. Hawthorn Amateur Football Club fulfills this role through a close network of current and ex-players (both men and women), their family and friends, supporters, umpires, staff, sponsors and partners. Together they share a love of AFL footy, and a commitment to improving mental health in the community.
In 2010, the club established its ‘Wings’ Program in response to an identified need for local mental health education, suicide prevention and pathways to care. The motivation for positive change came from the sad passing of two former players and a family member by suicide. From tragedy, the club decided to build the strength and resilience to move forward and support others who might be dealing with mental health problems or suicidality.
The goal of Wings was to address gaps in local preventative mental health education and access to tangible supports. The program also recognised two major barriers to giving and receiving care: 1) stigma – which prevented positive conversations about mental health and help seeking; and 2) cost – which could prevent people with mental health problems from receiving the formal care they needed for treatment. By removing stigma through mental health awareness, and reducing the cost burdens for treatment, the club saw an opportunity to help those with developing, worsening or crisis point mental health problems.
Embracing mental health within club culture
Matthew Tanis, Secretary at Hawthorn Amateur Football Club explains the importance of Mental Health First Aid® (MHFA™) training, which has become integral to the club’s overall mental health strategy and culture.
“To be effective we need knowledge and skills to guide us and help us deliver our programs. So fundamentally the MHFA training underpins everything we do and allows us to take our program from strength to strength by spreading information and knowledge through our club community. This allows us to have more discussions and interactions, and to really embed a ‘no stigma’ approach to assisting those who need it. It has become part of our club culture, which is really special.”
Each year, a new batch of club members completes MHFA training and four are appointed as Wings Ambassadors. These members become prominent local advocates for mental health, and are responsible for providing support, connecting people with information, and facilitating access to the Wings Mental Health Fund (for financial support relating to treatment). This enables frontline community care as well as pathways to formal mental health care. The club currently has 10 active, qualified MHFAiders®, and is looking to add around 10 more in the current season.
Hawthorn Amateur FC provide another example of a Mental Health First Aid community partner that have embraced MHFA training, in a way that works for their specific audience.
“We chose the blended MHFA course because we found allowing participants to complete the self-paced eLearning component created a platform for insightful conversations relevant to our club and real situations that arise. Completing the online learning before attending a face-to-face session also allowed participants to take on the content at their pace, and come up with questions they could ask the MHFA Instructor. This deepens understanding and has driven further discussion.”
Committed leaders and champions
Embedding sustainable mental health strategies into any organisation or community group takes commitment and leadership. Hawthorn Amateur FC found this early on with Wings Program Founder and Former Club President, Pat Clancey. “In what is a huge issue in society, mental illness should be front of mind for all sporting clubs and organisations, particularly considering their demographic,” he explains.
The club also identified the need for internal championing of the program so that it would truly have traction. Identifying Ambassadors who can build a rapport with other members and stakeholders is important. Two of these Ambassadors, Tim Chapman and Sarah Ward, shared their thoughts:
“Mental illness can affect anybody, it doesn’t discriminate. It can affect any one from any occupation, any culture, any gender. No one is alone in that,” says Tim as he emphasises the need for the program.
Sarah explains how skills-based training practically helps, “Everyone goes through highs and lows in life and naturally tackles issues in their own different ways. The most important skill to utilise is active listening and appreciating that every person, whether they realise it or not, requires a different approach.”
The club has also created the annual Wings Trophy – named in honour of the players and members lost to suicide – which is awarded to the person who ‘best looks after their mates both on and off the field’. This acknowledgement strengthens local perceptions about mental health and instils a club unity and sense of pride in those who support others.
Extending benefits across the club, community and region
In 2022, the club has a commitment to expanding its Wings Ambassador base and finding new ways for them to network and upskill. They are also exploring the addition of Youth MHFA training, so that they can better support the mental health of young members and stakeholders.
The club continues to share its journey by inspiring other clubs in the Victorian Amateur Football Association and across other local sports codes, such as the Hawthorn Cricket Club, and Auburn Bowling Club. Using their practical model, they hope to pass on their success to inspire healthier, happier and safer communities across their region. They believe sporting clubs have an essential role to play in this, because they have seen the change firsthand.
“We are seeing more club members open to having discussions about their mental health, and asking for help when needed, than ever before. All because the training allows us to normalise these conversations and make them safe for everybody,” Matthew Tanis.
Do you work with a sporting or hobby club and want to contribute to positive change? Are mental health problems a challenge in your local community? Like Hawthorn Amateur Football Club you can make MHFA training part of your wellbeing strategy.
Thank you to Matthew Tanis and Molly Johnston from Hawthorn Amateur Football Club for taking the time to share their experience with MHFA training. Click the videos below to learn more about the Wings Program and how MHFA training has contributed towards its success.
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