Simon Hogan - The elephant in the room. 

University Blacks

NEARLY three years after quitting AFL football, former Geelong midfielder Simon Hogan is using his experience with mental illness to help others battle their demons.

Hogan played 22 games for the Cats between 2009 and 2011, before retiring at the end of 2012 after being diagnosed with a depressive disorder.

The 26-year-old has now finished a science degree, majoring in psychology, and is working as a community engagement officer at national youth mental health foundation, Headspace.

He's also considering embarking on some more psychology-based studies.

"Psychology and mental health awareness is definitely a passion of mine so I'm looking forward to seeing where that goes," Hogan toldAFL.com.au.

Back playing footy in the Victorian Amateur Football Association with University Blacks, Hogan is co-founder of a player driven initiative, Thick and Thin, that was launched in May earlier this year.

The initiative, which came about when he was approached by Old Scotch captain Scott Sherwen late last year, aims to create awareness around mental health issues among the 12,000 young men in the VAFA.  

Champions of the cause have been nominated at every club in Premier and Premier B division this season to encourage conversations about mental illness.

"I think footy clubs are such an important area to approach mental health in a positive way, and to get young men thinking about mental health and what they do to keep themselves well.

"I think the fact that [Thick and Thin] is a footy club approach is very unique and it's just a powerful way of addressing the stigma that's still associated with mental health issues."

Hogan admitted the "macho" cultures of football clubs at all levels often prevents those struggling with mental illness to seek help.

"Speaking to my teammates was one of the things I was most scared of when I was having a bit of a rough time," Hogan said.

"I guess that was around not knowing how they would view me and thinking that it's really going to change the way I'm seen as a person and as a footballer. It's incredible at how inaccurate that thought process was.

"The more that we can promote positive mental health conversations and just general conversations about absolutely anything within a club environment the better."

Hogan said the support he received from his teammates at Geelong and the club was outstanding, and has praised the Cats for helping Mitch Clark to resurrect his AFL career after his own battle with depression.

"I feel a little bit of pride in Geelong taking on Mitch and being prepared to help him get back playing AFL footy," Hogan said.

"I guess I learned a lot through my experience at the Cats, but the footy club certainly did as well in how to manage those sorts of issues and what's best for the player and what’s not. They were certainly fantastic in my situation and I'm sure they took a lot of confidence from that in picking up Mitch."

Hogan and Sherwen have big dreams for Thick and Thin.

The aim in the short term is to have champions of the cause at every club across all grades in the VAFA before turning their attention to other metro football leagues.

August 15 is Thick and Thin ‘socks round’ in the VAFA.

Home teams will wear navy socks, and away clubs sky blue in a bid to raise awareness.

Nick Pearce - Nicks Story

Old Trinity Grammarians

This year, 2015, is my fourth year as a player at Old Trinity Grammarians Amateur Football Club (OTGAFC). During the beginning of 2012 (my first year as an U19), I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Each day before preseason training, I was experiencing anxiety, panic and general unhappiness. Going to footy was one of the only times that I felt “normal.” It provided me with a couple of hours of relief from challenges I’d encounter during the day- there were even moments where I completely forgot I had a mental illness. OTGAFC become a safe place for me (I was able to focus on something I loved with the support of my mates).

I began work for headspace in the same year and decided to do some public speaking about my experiences. The hardest chat I ever had to give was last year- I’d previously spoken to rooms full of complete strangers (300+ people), but I was asked by the club president after training one night if I’d feel comfortable talking about mental health/illness on a Thursday night dinner to the boys. The day of the talk, I’m pretty sure I spent over seven hours pacing the kitchen. I can vividly remember my whole body shaking as I began to open my mouth.

There were about 90 players there (from all teams) staring at me intently. I had told myself going into the talk that this would be one of the most important things I’d ever do. The chat went way longer than we’d agreed, but there was dead silence in the room the whole time. I decided to tell the boys everything about what I’d experienced- moments of weakness, crying uncontrollably to my parents and my sessions with a clinical psychiatrist. I had absolutely no idea what the response would be. I just knew that I had to get it out there because people my age don’t usually talk about this kind of stuff.

To date, it’s probably the proudest achievement I’ve ever accomplished. After my chat, I asked everyone in the room to put their hand up (if they felt comfortable) if they’d also experienced something like what I had. There were over 10 players, senior coaching staff and even the club president who acknowledged that they had also battled with a mental illness. Every single person in the room came up, shook my hand and thanked me for sharing my story.

That night, I received countless Facebook messages from teammates who said they also had their own personal demons and felt relieved knowing they weren’t the only person in the world who carried this burden- some even said they were booking appointments to go and see someone at headspace.

My dad (a team manager for the U19’s) also came to hear me speak that night- it was the first time he’d ever heard me talk openly about my illness. I can’t stress enough how important this partnership is. Mental health and illness is so prevalent in this day and age- and we’re ready to tackle it head on. I’m so excited about the prospect of my two passions combining to hopefully achieve something pretty special- footy is just a game. Looking after ourselves and each other is perhaps the most important thing of all.

Nick Pearce works at Headpspace and is a player at Old Trinity. He is also part of the VAFA players initiative Thick and Thin. You can see Nick’s story here and read more about Thick and Thin’s campaign to #StartTheConvo here.