Sport is powerful. It forms an integral part of a community’s identity and can nurture a deep sense of belonging. Australian Rules Football is the most popular sport in Western Australia (WA), attracting a diverse audience of players, members, organisers and volunteers. Local football clubs often function as important community hubs, especially in regional areas.
According to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, suicide is a prominent public health concern, with more than 3,100 suicide deaths occurring in Australia in 2021. On average, one person dies every day by suicide in WA. A big risk factor for suicide and self-harm is having a mental health issue.
Healthway plays a pivotal role in promoting good health, including mental wellbeing, and encouraging healthy lifestyles within our communities. Healthway works with the organisations it funds to help create a healthier WA. As part of this role, Healthway saw an opportunity to partner with the Western Australian Country Football League (WACFL) in 2019, to deliver mental health strategies that could be rolled out at a grassroots level. The WACFL’s wide-ranging audience, through its association with regional football leagues, would have the knock-on benefit of building capacity and confidence within clubs to drive social change.
Through this partnership – together with the Department of Justice WA, the WA Mental Health Commission and The University of WA – the Community Development Program was rolled out across all 25 WACFL senior leagues, from the Kimberley to Esperance, over a three-year period. The program includes several strategies to increase awareness and understanding of the WA Mental Health Commission’s Think Mental Health campaign, through initiatives such as the Think Mental Health Round and Talk to a Mate!! BBQ, Think Mental Health Bush Footy Legends podcast series, mental health workshops and e-learning portals.
Evaluation conducted after 12 months showed that nine in 10 players and club members could recall at least one element of the Think Mental Health partnership (94 per cent). In addition, just over half of respondents rated achieving and maintaining their own mental health and wellbeing as important (57 per cent) and all respondents believed asking for help was acceptable (100 per cent). Clubs also reported that the culture among players had improved, in terms of sharing how they felt and being supportive of mental health discussions.
In 2022, as part of the program, the Regional Men’s Health Initiative (RMHI) delivered 54 club awareness sessions across regional, rural and remote WACFL clubs and communities. Suicide prevention coordinators also facilitated mental health education, training and connection with local services.
WACFL executive manager Tom Bottrell said he believed the Think Mental Health campaign strongly aligned with the needs and key concerns of many regional communities throughout the WACFL network.
‘It’s a great partnership because the message is strong, with mental health being one of the biggest issues in regional WA, and it’s delivering something that’s important to the community,’ he said.
‘This has led to many clubs getting on board who are highly motivated to promote the message.’
For many people in regional WA, community sporting clubs like football provide an opportunity to socialise and start conversations about mental health. It has, therefore, been this social aspect and sense of community that has prompted people to be receptive to the Think Mental Health message.
Healthway and Lotterywest CEO Ralph Addis said he was proud to have supported the WACFL and that the partnership had been, and will continue to be, a resounding success.
‘There’s an African proverb that says “If you want to travel fast, go alone. But if you want to travel far, go together.” To be successful in sport and to support good mental health, we need to understand the power of teamwork,’ he said.
‘Healthway will continue to work with the WACFL to strengthen local service networks and identify opportunities to educate and build mental health support capacity within the country football community.’