NZ mental health issues are highlighted by Trott

New Zealand Cricket Players Association boss Heath Mills took a call yesterday from the latest cricketer seeking assistance with mental health issues.

Whether that was prompted by the huge publicity around England batsman Jonathan Trott's departure from the Ashes series for a stress-related illness is uncertain, but Mills believes progress is finally being made.

Former test players Lou Vincent and Iain O'Brien started the ball rolling in cricketing circles when going public with their respective struggles with mental health.

Mills said 20-25 of the roughly 150 first-class cricketers in New Zealand over the past two years had turned to the NZCPA for assistance, a staggeringly high percentage.

Athletes from other sports had approached Mills, too, anxious about raising their hand in their own code.

"There's lots to be done in this space in New Zealand sport, and the time has come for there to be some kind of national discussion led by government about this issue," said Mills, who has discussed it with Sport NZ chief executive Peter Miskimmin.

"High performance sport is the last bastion to break down the barriers and accept that mental health issues are an illness, and it's OK to talk about it and it's not a reflection of your sporting ability. This whole harden-up mentality that we have has put barriers up to people getting help."

The NZCPA has around 400 members; 150 current players including the White Ferns women's team, and 250 former players and coaches. It turns over around $1.1 million per year, half of that funded from the player payment pool, and Mills said the NZCPA devoted around $15,000 to mental health.

It was made a high priority under their risk management programme run by former Auckland and Central Districts player Sanj Silva. The NZCPA runs mental health workshops for all the first-class players on warning signs to look out for, in both themselves and team-mates.

Players are directed towards Wellington-based behavioural healthcare company Instep, then linked with clinicians around the country, or even in overseas locations when teams are touring.

"It's very hard for people to put their hands up and say they're struggling with these issues for fear of being judged, and that impacting on selection or contracting," Mills said.

"The vast majority of people who've come through our programme do so confidentially and their coaches won't know about it. That's a really important thing to have.

"We are seeing more signs of people being prepared to put up their hands and be proactive but it's been a long slow burn."

Cricketers are particularly susceptible, given the topline players are away from their own beds for up to 11 months a year. Some fringe Black Caps were on tour for nearly four months recently, starting with a camp in Australia in July and wending their way through the subcontinent with NZA and the national side, who returned home from Sri Lanka at the weekend.

"If you're predisposed to having a mental health issue then the environments we place our guys in and the stress they're under, can often trigger things," Mills said.

The Dominion Post