When Jake Edwards’s name was called out by the Carlton Football Club on AFL draft night in 2005, it appeared to herald a long and successful career in football.
Less than nine years later, he tried to take his life.
“I’m very fortunate to still be here, to be able to spend time with my family again and shake my dad’s hand and hug Mum,” Edwards said.
The 31-year-old’s life collapsed after being delisted by the Blues, as he battled mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse.
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It all stemmed from a diagnosis of depression and anxiety from his footballing days, and a loss of identity as a footballer post-retirement.
“There is a four-year period post my AFL career where I just ran away, I just pushed people away. Friends, family, I stopped going to birthdays, Christmases,” Edwards recalled.
“I felt like I let my family down. That identity of football I had lost, and when I took that jumper off I didn’t know who I was anymore.
“If I wasn’t drinking every weekend, it was every few days, which ultimately led me [to] drug abuse as well.
“I needed to find that feeling again of being valued, and that’s what I guess the alcohol and drug abuse fulfilled in my life.”
Born into a footballing dynasty
Football had always been a major part of Edwards’s life. His great-grandfather, grandfather, father and cousin all played in the VFL or AFL.
His grandfather, Arthur Edwards, played 120 games for Footscray, including in the club’s successful 1954 grand final against Melbourne.
“I always say if I was to give blood tomorrow, there would be little footies floating around [in it],” Edwards said.
“It was always something I wanted to do, for as long as I can remember.”
But despite glimpses of his talent, life as a professional footballer didn’t go according to plan for Edwards.
Jake Edwards in action on the football field
Towards the end of his second year with Carlton, he started experiencing mental health issues, which he tried to ignore.
“I did what every typical young male does and just closed off,” Edwards recalled.
“I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want people to know about it.
“Symptoms for me were just isolation, crying most mornings, which is frustrating because I was supposed to be fit, healthy.”
Edwards hid his struggles from his teammates and Carlton, until one poor VFL game sent him off the rails.
He went back to the family farm, calling the club on the way to tell them he was done with football.
‘A simple pill isn’t going to be the cure’
Edwards was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and started taking medication, allowing him to return to the club and resume his career.
A marathon without a finish line
Professional athletes often view mental health issues as an opponent that can be beaten, but they need to know not everything in life is a battle to be won or lost, writes Richard Hinds.
But he didn’t fully grasp what it meant to have a mental illness.
“I was naive and ignorant to the fact it was something that was probably going to be with me for a lifetime, and a simple pill isn’t going to be the cure,” Edwards said.
The illness reared it head a couple of years later, when Edwards had left Carlton and was training with the Western Bulldogs, hoping to be picked up in the AFL draft.
Despite promises from the club, he was overlooked, ending his career and sending him spiralling — eventually leading to an attempt to take his own life.
“I had a trigger in a relationship which led me down a four-day drug-and-alcohol-fuelled bender, and that led to an attempt on my own life one morning,” he said.
Help from Outside the Locker Room
Edwards spent time in a program working with psychiatrists and getting education around mental health, and it was there that he developed the concept of Outside the Locker Room (OTLR).
The not-for-profit foundation aims to help sporting clubs — from grassroots to professional — along with schools and employers to understand and manage the challenges faced by their employees or members.
It has been widely adopted, with the Federal Government providing funding in Western Australia for the program to be rolled out in 100 sporting clubs and 50 schools per year for the next four years.
It also comes at a time when the issue of mental health in the AFL looms larger than ever, with star Collingwood midfielder Dayne Beams stepping away from the game indefinitely last month while describing himself as a “broken man”.
Subiaco Football Club is one of the organisations which has adopted the Outside the Locker Room program, having done so after one of its trainers worked on a research project looking at the mental health of injured players.
“Our board looked at those findings in 2017 and thought, ‘We need to do something to support our players’,” Subiaco chief executive Peter Capes said.
When football is about more than the game
OTLR was introduced at Subiaco to provide support and education for players struggling with mental health and has helped the club through some difficult times.
“We lost a player due to suicide a couple of years ago, and it really impacted our playing group, and Outside the Locker Room were able to quickly come in and provide some counselling and support,” Capes said.
The organisation provides services to the club in other ways, providing a phone app which allows players to anonymously log data related to how they are feeling.
It gives Subiaco’s coaches valuable information.
“It provides a snapshot of the playing group and the sorts of things we need to pay attention to,” Capes said.
“We’ve gone away from coaches coaching footy. They have to coach the player, look out for them and how they are going, they need to know what’s going on in their family and friends.
“It’s become a little bit more complicated.”