On a lovely day for pleasant games, all the sporting people in the district gathered on the edge of a vibrant field to see something they’d never seen before.
Warning: This story contains themes that may be confronting for some readers
Sale City and Rosedale seniors, reserves, netballers, umpires, mates, family and children lined up squarely to hear stalwart clubman Greg Robinson talk about suicide.
People feel they can discuss the issue of mental health in clubs all over Australia, but they do not often mention suicide.
Not like this.
Even the cypress and red gums, lining the oval’s wings like grandstands, seemed to be listening in to the echoes of love and despair.
“Join us in honouring all members from our respective clubs who have passed before us due to their battles with mental illness, and hopefully display our support for those who continue to suffer,” Greg says.
“We reflect on our most recent loss of club favourite, four-time senior premiership player Justin McLay, and 1993 senior premiership player Robert Stal.
“To quote a member [wife of Robert, who died in 2000] directly touched by this unfortunate illness, ‘every day you think of what you could’ve done to help — that’s the pain left behind’.
“Let’s take a moment to reflect and show our respect for those we care for and those who still suffer.”
‘Too young, too good, too soon’
Justin McLay brought people together. He was the kind of bloke who always had the time to ask you about your day, your problems, your issues.
He never expected anything in return. It’s just the way he was.
“I’ve never known somebody to have so many best friends,” his partner, Ashlyn Weston, said.
An English and humanities teacher at Maffra Secondary College, Ashlyn also plays goal defence at Sale City Football and Netball Club.
“So many people have said to me, ‘I thought Justin was my best friend.’ He just made people feel really, really good,” she says.
The couple had a three-year-old, Bobby, and Justin had three other sons aged 12, 10, and 8 from a previous marriage.
When all were together on weekends, they were happy and full of beans.
“They were his pride and joy,” Ashlyn says.
The game of Aussie rules was at the centre of their lives.
“He loved his footy,” Ashlyn says.
“He’d make us watch every single game of AFL, every single weekend. He lived for sport.”
As a teenager, Justin had been talented enough to represent Gippsland Power in Australia’s best youth league, coached by former Essendon premiership player Darren Bewick.
Darren liked young Justin for his quiet, selfless way.
The boy became a man, moved around a bit with work, as far away as America at one stage. A builder by trade, he spent recent years as an offshore fly-in fly-out worker in Bass Strait.
He never stopped playing footy, winning flags and admirers.
Justin turned out for a few seasons in Melbourne and Adelaide, but he spent most of his Saturday afternoons hunting red leather on the lush fields of Gippsland for Sale and Sale City.
Balance and skill set him apart. Opponents respected him for his toughness and understated sportsmanship.
“He was an excellent player, courageous,” Ashlyn says.
“He was naturally fit.”
Teammates called him an Adonis. One old clubman says Justin was built like a brick shithouse, a fine compliment.
Before the first game of this North Gippsland Football Netball Club (NGFNL) season, Ashlyn wondered what it would be like out there on the bitumen court.
“‘Just’ was always on the sideline watching me,” she says.
“He’s not going to be there.”
Justin McLay died by suicide on Melbourne Cup weekend last year.
He was 37.
His death has left a “gaping hole”.
“At the start, it’s a shock,” Ashlyn says.
“Then you just feel like it’s a dream and you’re going to wake up. Then you do wake up and you’re planning a funeral, picking a coffin, picking music, and looking at photos. You don’t even have time to process. You’ve just got to do all this organising.”
Six months later, her mind goes back and forth.
She remembers meeting him in 2015, weekend trips to Melbourne, how he liked to unwind each night with a block of chocolate and a beer, planning the rest of their days together.
“[But] every time I think about the future, all the stuff that we’d imagined is just gone,” she says.
“And now the shock has started to wear off. It’s a different sort of sadness. It’s a really deep sadness.
“In a way, when you’re in shock, you’re on adrenaline: you’re not eating, you’re not sleeping, you’re not functioning really, but now you’ve got to go back to life, go back to work. You’ve got to show your face. It’s really hard to navigate everything.”
There’s no way to avoid the desert of grief.
“It hits you at different times. Sometimes I’d be on the way to work and I’d drive past the racecourse and I’d burst into tears. Or I’ll hear a song on the radio,” she says.
Lifeline statistics say nine Australians die every day by suicide and 75 per cent of those are male.
Many have shown signs of struggle with mental illness, although Justin was not one of them.
“No big event,” Ashlyn says.
“He’d been in [COVID] quarantine the week before and he was meant to be offshore [working].”
Ashlyn had gone to Lakes Entrance with Bobby in a caravan. She told Justin if he didn’t have to go to work later in the week, he should come to Lakes with them.
“Yeah, I will,” he said. “I’ll see you there.”
“Then I get a phone call,” Ashlyn says.
“And life’s changed forever.”
Ashlyn has been getting counselling to help her cope with her loss.
“I’ve been starting to get somewhere,” she says.
“I think always about the kids. It must be so challenging for them, for young people to comprehend.”
The questions that might never be answered are for everyone.
“I can think of a thousand things and I wonder constantly,” Ashlyn says.
“There’s not an hour of the day that goes by where I’m not thinking of Justin. And sometimes I do wonder why, I get angry, I get upset, sometimes I feel really sorry. You go through those grief emotions.
“You are left wondering. And you over-analyse every single interaction and event. What could I have done differently?”
Football clubs are searching for a way to help members, past and present
Sale City FNC life member Greg Robinson, 55, is in the NGFNL Hall of Fame for his services to country sport.
He was also a good mate of Justin McLay.
“It’s a difficult thing for me to talk about,” he says.
“I’ve had quite a number of friends who have [died by suicide] and it got to the point where I couldn’t go to another funeral. I didn’t go to Justin’s. I haven’t been to probably four suicide funerals. I’m just not comfortable with how it ended.”
Like everyone else, Greg has unanswerable questions.
“Did he have someone to talk to? Did he feel strong enough to be able to raise it with someone and through doing that, could that have prevented him doing what he did?” he says.
Greg, who was also close to Robert Stal, suggested his beloved club hold a day to promote mental health services.
He wanted to reach into the past and extend hands to former members.
“There’s been a number of players [who died by suicide] who have been active at the time or past players,” he says.
“I don’t want to see another person ever go through what he went through and not have the knowledge that there are people that can support you.”
Sale City FNC president Mick Clapton was on board straight away.
“The way Justin died shone a light on mental health and suicide,” he says.
“It shocked everyone. We felt as a club we needed to address it.”
Mick, who is also a police sergeant and game day trainer, worked with Greg to involve Dancing with the Black Dog, a Melbourne-based mental health charity.
Special jumpers were made with the black dog. Pins were offered to club members to wear as a statement of readiness to talk openly.
“I do this for a living,” Mick says.
“I go to suicides. I talk to people about not committing suicide. There’s warning signs and there’s danger signs when you talk to people.
“I know after 32 years of policing what I’m looking for most of the time. But that’s where it [Justin’s death] hit me pretty hard. He was a mate. I’ve known his family for a long time. But there was not one warning sign at all.
“Sometimes, you can see when someone is struggling and you try to help. But we didn’t have time to talk to Justin about this because we didn’t know what was going on.”
Soon after Justin died, Greg and Mick invited trusted youth and family worker Richard Lanham to hold two “forums for conversation” at the clubrooms.
“A football club, like a school, is a microcosm of a greater community,” Richard tells ABC Sport.
“You have a reluctance or a lack of permission or experience in dealing with these kinds of challenging moments.
“I think their social experience is in tune with a classic Australian culture.”
Richard said football clubs have an opportunity to encourage men to talk more about their struggles in life.
“Men have a narrow expectation about what they’re allowed to talk about,” he says.
“It can be perceived as weak. Men don’t have the language.”
Richard said sporting clubs should try to be proactive rather than reactive on mental health and suicide.
“There’s this awesome scope because of their connection with men – if clubs are prepared to do it – to have these conversations. That’s a big piece of work. It’s a community-wide investment,” he says.
“Our sporting clubs become these amazing centres of humanity — where we have this great opportunity to invest good stuff because that’s where the people are.”
Young Lachie Heywood touched several clubs with his energy
Rosedale Football Netball Club, the other team lined up to hear Greg Robinson’s rare speech, is still coping with its own heartbreak — the death by suicide of 25-year-old Lachie Heywood.
Lachie was recruited by Rosedale from East Gippsland club Stratford for the 2020 season. Like Justin McLay, he had been good enough to play at a higher level for Sale in the major Gippsland League.
Six foot four. Lean. Could sneak forward and kick goals. Nice hands.
He was a ruckman who played like a fourth midfielder, an impossible match-up for any opposition.
Teammates knew him as “pretty reserved” but “bubbly” around those he knew well.
Lachie knew how to tell a good joke. He was the type of bloke teams think about when they mention their fabric.
COVID cruelled the 2020 season, so Lachie didn’t play for Rosedale.
The 25-year-old died in August of that year.
His premiership teammate at Stratford, Reggie Tait, remains devastated.
“He had a lot of things that were going well for him,” he says.
“We were all a bit dumbfounded. I’ve experienced loss multiple times, [but] I was dumbfounded personally.”
Lachie had a loving family. He had enjoyed travel with his girlfriend, and they were making plans to go again.
Reggie found out later Lachie had been suffering from depression.
“It really saddens me that he went through that silently,” he says.
All throughout Gippsland, sporting clubs are holding special matches for mental health awareness.
Committees are enlisting organisations to help them talk about mental health and suicide prevention.
Rosedale brought in Mindfull Aus, which facilitates programs and workshops.
Stratford has engaged Beyond Blue and Tackle Your Feelings, hosting an evening attended by former AFL player Dylan Buckley.
The much-anticipated matches between Stratford and rival Boisdale-Briagalong have been dedicated to the cause.
“We’re taking steps to create change at a community level as well as a club level,” Reggie says.
“We need to educate our members about mental health concepts.”
Reggie, 31, is Stratford’s ruckman and treasurer.
He is worried one-off awareness programs are not enough to prevent future tragedies, so his club has initiated formal training sessions for club leaders, with follow-up online modules to “consolidate the learnings”.
“For me personally, I am better for it,” Reggie says.
“I’m happy to take those conversations.”
Reggie also advocates for broadened discussion throughout media, local and national.
“It does need to be brought into popular media,” he says.
“It’s still very taboo. It’s only going to continue to have that stigma. Educate people on how to navigate the conversations.”
Goodwood going further to help players past and present
An award-winning program at Goodwood Saints Football Club in South Australia is already saving lives.
It began a few years ago when club president and policeman Craig Scott transformed his club’s priorities.
“One of my driving forces was to change the club from being a football club to being a community club,” Craig says.
Two years ago, Goodwood began mourning three of its past players who had died by suicide, including former Richmond favourite Shane Tuck.
“Shane was the first one in 2020,” Craig says.
“And that really rocked us, even though he was at the club for a short time.”
Shane impressed everyone at Goodwood with his generous spirit.
“We have an inclusive side with disabilities and integration difficulties,” Craig says.
“And Tucky really took that on as a project and would be out there with them, helping, training them. They just loved him.
“So he really got into the club. And I suppose that’s why it hurt so much.”
Goodwood’s coach is Shane Tuck’s childhood friend Luke Donaldson, who spent one season with the Western Bulldogs in the AFL and eight seasons with West Adelaide in SANFL.
“We lost Tucky, who was one of my closest mates,” Luke says.
“It only takes one [suicide] to rock a footy club to core. We experienced that a couple of times over the past few years.”
As always, questions kept coming back.
“The initial reflection is, what more could you have done to help,” Luke says.
“And then also how hard it is that he felt that that was the better option for the people closest to him.
“From a footy club point of view, he had an enormous effect on everyone because he was so approachable and humble despite his success. He was like a country larrikin that had time for everyone.
“One of those guys that everyone loved to be around. Certainly left a big hole for me personally and a lot of people at the club.”
Luke spoke to his players about finding better support for their mental health.
“Myself and some of the other senior coaches, we’ve talked openly about our own situations,” he says.
“Hopefully, that opens the opportunity for other people to have the conversation.
“Also, another obstacle for some of the young guys is the financial cost. So, the club’s been extraordinary in doing that and even reaching out to past players.”
Goodwood started an Early Assistance Program designed so players past and present could be offered confidential counselling or psychologist services.
“We had no idea what it was going to cost us,” he says.
“And it’s all great to say we’ll pay for five sessions but if each session is $250 and you get 20 players accessing the program, it can be expensive.”
A local sponsor helped finance the scheme.
“Any education you have is normally a one-off thing and you move on,” Craig says.
“We actually said we’ve got a lot of information about asking, are you OK? But what’s the step when someone says no, I’m not?
“It was all about trying to reduce any barrier.”
Craig Scott based the model on help offered to South Australian police officers.
“I knew the system really well,” he says.
“We don’t say to them, you have to get a mental health plan. Some people don’t want anyone to know.”
The club has a return-to-work professional as a first point of contact.
“She was very passionate about it and loved the idea,” Craig says.
“She works out who is the best person for them and then organises an appointment. We just get the invoice and we pay it from there.”
A club-appointed mental health officer provides a report at year’s end to enable the committee to understand how many people have accessed the program.
There were eight — six current players and two past players — in the first season.
“The confidentiality was really the key for me,” Craig says.
“To make sure that I wasn’t aware, no one was aware, other than the people involved.
One of the past players who accessed the program said it saved him from dying by suicide.
“My experience with mental health was, it all got too much for me one day and I sat out the back in my garage and had thoughts of committing suicide,” he told ABC Sport on the promise of anonymity.
“Nobody understood how much pain I was in and how much it’s affected my life, and then losing my marriage and work.”
He had been a player who served the club for 24 years. Post-football, he had a workplace injury. A marriage breakdown followed.
“I wasn’t able to work,” he says.
“I had a lot of trauma, dealing with chronic pain … as well as mental health, depression. You’re at your darkest when everyone else is asleep.”
It was his estranged wife who spoke to Craig Scott at Goodwood Saints.
Craig brought him into the program and made sure the club paid for support.
“And that’s where it all started,” the man says.
“When Craig helped me, I actually went to a lady [psychologist] that put things into perspective.
“My kids were only young at this stage and I didn’t want my kids to [have that moment] when someone says, ‘oh, where’s your dad?’
“Part of my life is gone that I can’t do much about but what I’ve got left I need to try to make the best of.
“Craig’s my angel. I think about what Craig did for me. He cares. He respects me. He reached out and offered me an opportunity to keep going through it and find light. Without him, I don’t think I’d be here.”
Young footballers changing the old club mentality
In Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, another football heartland, shared grief has been a motivator for three young footballers to raise a strong voice against suffering in silence.
Nathan Scaglarini, Mason DeWitt and Ben Farish are qualified teachers. Nathan and Mason have both played state league football and Ben coaches an U-19s footy side.
In June 2021, they posted a single picture on a new Instagram page along with the caption: “Three mates, one aspiration.”
Since then, they have been busy establishing Speak and Share, a not-for-profit advocacy group.
“We thought we’re all going to be teachers but what more can we do?” Nathan says.
“How can we have an impact?
“So, we decided to make ourselves vulnerable and share our stories.”
Ben’s friend Josh Curren — the brother of former St Kilda player Tom — died by suicide in December 2020.
“It still affects us to this day,” Ben says.
“We question ourselves about what we could’ve done differently to help him. If we said something different, if we replied to a text [message]. If I replied differently, would that have changed something?”
Ben and Mason both grew up with Josh. The three of them all played junior football at Mt Eliza.
“Ben was heartbroken,” Nathan says.
“He is one of the best mates anyone could ever have. To lose someone so close to him is like losing himself, really.”
Josh suffered anxiety and depression before he died.
“It just breaks your heart,” Ben says.
“A 26-year-old. A footballer, good job, financially secure, partner, house. You just can’t comprehend what he was going through.
“Seriously, just breaks your heart.
“There would’ve been 600 people at his funeral. And if he had all the people who went to his funeral standing in front of him …”
Nathan’s personal story is about family breakdown, a reflection on his parents’ divorce, while Mason’s cousin died in a workplace accident four years ago.
“We started Speak and Share on the back of a personal experience, and it’s a big part of our story,” Mason says.
“The way I like to pass on my story — that the support that our family and friends received from those close to us and the wider community was nothing short of amazing.
Speak and Share has been invited to football clubs.
“When we started, we didn’t know what it would look like,” Mason says.
“You don’t have to be famous [to make a difference]. You can be a normal member of your community.”
The boys came to the project untrained professionally, but with a bond they hoped could speak to other people like them.
“We’re not mental health professionals,” Nathan says.
“But we’ve been lucky to have each other.”
Nathan, Mason, and Ben said it was an advantage for them to be young males discussing mental health in a football environment.
“Young enough to influence 16-year-olds and with enough experience to talk to 50-year-olds,” Mason says.
Speak and Share pose questions about mental health and personal hardship with an emphasis on “optional vulnerability”.
Nathan says it was satisfying to see people sharing their own stories and understanding there are people standing by to listen.
“All your mates want to do is help you,” he says.
The role of football clubs in modern life
Greg Robinson agrees with that unofficial Speak and Share motto, although he is of a different generation.
“My perception has changed quite considerably over the years,” Greg says.
“It took me a long time to appreciate it is an illness. I’ve always seen it as a cop-out.
“I know where I was 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago even. And where I am now, I feel as though I’ve matured, grown, I’ve got a better understanding of mental health issues.
“I want to be part of helping rather than blaming. The proactive issue is what I’m looking at.”
It could save more lives, he says.
All the people ABC Sport spoke to about this issue said football and netball clubs had a critical role in mental health and suicide prevention.
“A football club is a role model for the community, in my opinion,” Greg says.
Former teammates are raising money for Justin McLay’s children. They’ve so far collected almost $50,000.
The champion’s number three jumper has been retired.
It will only be worn again by one of his four sons, the first to make his senior debut.
His eldest boy played his first junior game on the weekend.
“I’m glad the club jumped on board,” Ashlyn says.
“It’s about raising the awareness and providing people with the skills to help others that might be feeling this way.
“We have all these days [to raise awareness of mental health] but I don’t think people are well enough equipped to know to deal with someone when they say they’re not OK.
“So I hope something like this at the club can actually provide people with the skills to help.”
Source: AFL NEWS ABC