Is it OK to Call What Chris Yarran Went Through ‘Mental Health Issues’?

A YouTube clip posted almost three months ago, showing former AFL footballer Chris Yarran discussing his history with illicit drugs and his battle with addiction, became news when someone, somewhere, discovered it.

It sparked some debate at Onballers HQ. In the final year of his professional football career, Yarran was granted a leave of absence and eventually released from his contract with the Richmond Football Club to deal with undisclosed mental health issues. Does an illicit drugs addiction count as a mental health issue? It’s complicated.

Calling a spade a spade

Ryan Buckland: The AFL as a collective group of individuals and clubs appears to have made big strides in recognising and giving due regard to the mental health of its players in recent years. This year alone, a clutch of high profile players have taken a leave of absence from their clubs to receive treatment for mental health concerns, some of them for a few days, others for a few months. The highest profile of all, the Western Bulldogs’ Tom Boyd, makes his return this weekend at VFL level after stepping back from football more than six weeks ago. Teammate Travis Cloke went public with his battle two weeks prior; young and old, it does not discriminate.

Chris Yarran took an indefinite leave of absence from Richmond in early 2016, and was released from his contract at the end of last year, as a result of mental health related issues. Except now it has emerged Yarran was dealing with a very nasty illicit drug addiction.

At what point does a mental health issue morph into an illicit drugs issue, and vice versa? Mental health issue has a substantially different connotation to an illicit drugs problem; the former viewed more sympathetically by the general public. Is an illicit drugs issue a specific enough affliction to be called out for what it is or was? When the issue – root or underlying –  is as clearly defined as what it appears to have been for Yarran, we as a society should feel comfortable to call a spade a spade.

I am sympathetic to the view that such a matter is private – that neither Yarran or Richmond have an obligation to do anything or inform anyone on such matters. But invoking “mental health issues” when something so overt is at play, is that acceptable? It’s pretty grey.

When It Comes to Mental Health, Can We Afford Doubt?

Ken Sakata: Mental health is poorly understood. Drug abuse is poorly understood. Both are poorly managed by our existing systems of care.

Richmond chose to release information about Yarran’s mental health, but not his drug abuse. Is this problematic? Is this a lie?

To understand Richmond’s statement is to understand the agendas at play. There’s (A) The Club. They want to protect their player, but not at the expense of their own interests. They want to be seen as a club with a supportive culture, not a drug-addled one. (B) Chris Yarran. He wants to manage his issues as privately and effectively as possible. And (C) The Public. We want to satisfy our curiosity. It’s better if it’s the truth.

There’s only one agenda that’s important, and it’s Yarran’s. Did Richmond obfuscate the truth? Does Yarran have a mental issue? Is it solely a drug issue? All are unknown and unknowable. Regardless, Yarran deserved the best shot at treating his issues in private. I choose to believe he has a mental health problem because he said so. Why wouldn’t I?

Players will take drugs for reasons separate to mental health. If caught, some will lie and claim mental health struggles. Blame optics. Individuals aren’t seen to be at fault for mental health, but there is a different stigma with drugs. Drugs are seen as something you do to yourself.

To question every footballer that publicly battles with mental health and drugs has wider implications. The cynicism directed towards their struggle casts doubt on a larger community of private citizens- people struggling with addiction and mental health, people who don’t receive adequate support as it stands. Can we afford doubt?

Is it better to doubt or to believe? Which approach protects ourselves from deceit?

But which approach will end up helping more people?