Former North Melbourne champion Wayne Schwass calls for mental health round

Former North Melbourne champion Wayne Schwass has called on the AFL to make the issue of mental health an immediate priority with the introduction of a themed round to the AFL fixture.

Schwass, 45, who battled depression during his 15-year, 282-game league career with North Melbourne and Sydney, has worked extensively in the area of mental health since he went public about his struggle in 2006.

He said on Monday that he had been moved to speak out again to help raise public consciousness after the death last weekend of TV personality Charlotte Dawson. And he said the AFL could help play a leading role in the fight to prevent suicide.

"I just think there's a need there and a real opportunity as the No.1 sporting body in Australia for us to actually put mental health on the agenda," Schwass said. "Not only within our code, given some of the pressures associated with playing and coaching and administering a hugely popular sport, but to show the Australian population that we're doing something to recognise the impact mental illness has on people not only following our game, but right around the country.

"The AFL does a great job in educating people through a number of great and worthy dedicated rounds, but for some reason, to this point we still don't have a dedicated mental health round. I think there's a massive opportunity for the game to tackle the issue in a positive sense."

Schwass said it was tragic that it took events like Dawson's death to bring issues such as depression to the forefront of public consciousness. "I didn't know Charlotte, but it's terribly sad that someone feels that's the only choice they have left. And, to put it into context, we lose more people to suicide than we do on the roads. We have this graphic and confronting road safety campaign, for which governments deserve to be applauded, but it beggars belief in my view that we don't direct as much attention to an issue that is taking far too many people. At some stage, somewhere along the line, it's going to take [sporting] codes and industry leaders and politicians to understand that this is a very real issue.''

Some mental health professionals and experts believe the AFL has been slow to endorse such campaigning, while embracing other worthwhile causes. One source said the league had been approached to get behind such an initiative as long as seven years ago.

"I've spoken to a couple of people within the AFL about it," Schwass said. "I respect the fact they're getting approached almost daily by organisations or people wanting them to do things, and in fairness to them, I think they've done an outstanding job in a number of areas such as breast cancer awareness. But I think this is the most important social issue facing the broader community. And for such a well-supported sporting body, the time is now.

"We've got 800 players, a significant amount of coaches and administrators, and members of our own code and our own supporters are grappling with this today. I think it would be really powerful if we embraced this opportunity to send a strong message that we understand it's something that is having a big impact."

Schwass set up the Sunrise Foundation, a high school preventative education program which he said had reached 5000 students by the end of last year, and had identified and responded to "a significant number" of children with mental health issues who had previously not received support.

The foundation has since wound up, but Schwass continues to be a vocal and visible profile for the public discussion of depression and mental health, and against the stigmatisation of those affected.

For help or information visit beyond blue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114.

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