Wallabies veteran Brendan Cannon has acknowledged that teammate and friend Dan Vickerman, who took his own life earlier this year, went through “dark periods” following the end of his career.
Speaking as part of a confronting Four Corners episode on the transition issues suffered by elite athletes after retirement, which include but are not limited to depression, worthlessness, injuries, reliance on prescription medicine and the battle to find work, Cannon reflected on the passing of his former roommate.
“All of us at different times have had really dark periods post-football,” Cannon said on the ABC program that aired on Monday evening.
“And Dan was one of those, Dan was no exception, really. He had dark periods away from football, in his transition.
“I think it’s just such a tragedy that our much-loved mate felt so alone at that moment, to do what he did.”
Cannon said he felt like he was in “utter darkness” when his 42-Test career came to an end.
The program also featured champion basketballer Lauren Jackson, ex-Essendon footballer Courtenay Dempsey, two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist swimmer Belinda Hocking and former Australian cricketer Nathan Bracken.
Jackson, who revealed she depended on prescription drugs late in her career due to injuries, said it was “a nightmare” to stop once she retired.
“Having to get off everything was really, really, really hard,” she said, adding she was taking “a lot of stuff”.
Jackson added: “One of my good friends from America, one of my teammates, said to me, ‘You know, athletes die two times’. And it’s true.”
‘Like a piece of meat’
Dempsey, who played 133 AFL matches for Essendon, said he struggled to come to terms with his delisting last season.
“[I feel] like a piece of meat, just getting thrown and forgotten about once they know you’re done,” he said.
Dempsey admitted “all I know is football” but Essendon, who spoke to the program, said their player development manager would continue to meet with the player.
Sports psychologist Gayelene Clews said once athletes retired they suffer “almost a chemical withdrawal”.
“In many ways, you could probably liken it to coming off something like cocaine,” she said.
‘Don’t be silly’
Getting a job following retirement has frustrated Hocking, who, at 26, says she is constantly told she lacks the experience others applying for similar jobs have.
“You put on the top of your resume ‘triple Olympian, dual Commonwealth Games gold medallist’, and I still haven’t heard back from 10 jobs that I’ve applied for,” she said.
“I’ve been told numerous times of ‘lack of experience’ – well how was I meant to get that experience when I was being an elite athlete?”
Hocking said that if she suffered from a mental health problem, her struggles getting a job would have made her “definitely want to hurt myself”, adding that she often felt like “dirt”.
Her story was backed up by Bracken: “I applied for pretty much every job under the sun.
“I applied for packing shelves and the comment is, ‘Oh, what do you need a job for? You don’t need this. Don’t be silly’.”
Bracken took legal action against Cricket Australia after an injured knee saw him retire from the game.
“I felt like I was a failure again. That I couldn’t achieve anything.”
Adjusting to life after sport
Sports psychologist Dr Clive Jones believes athletes need to prepare for retirement as soon as they begin their careers.
“When an athlete’s sense of value, significance and belonging are enmeshed to their sporting commitments and achievements, then their sense of self will be threatened incredibly upon retirement,” he told The New Daily.
“They are at risk of losing any sense of value and worth as a person and ultimately may start to feel they do not have a place in society anymore because who they are and what they offered us as a society is now finished, gone.”
If you or anyone you know needs help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.