Sellout crowd for 2023 MENtal Brekky

December 29, 2023

Former AFL player and mental health advocate Tom Boyd speaks at the 2023 MENtal Brekky.

Tom Boyd cuts an imposing figure.

Standing at 200cm tall, the former AFL footballer commands attention when he enters a room.

But it was his raw and honest words that captivated the sellout crowd at the 2023 MENtal Brekky at St Patrick’s College on Friday 20 October.

Now in its seventh year, the Brekky is the major fundraiser for the Chris Yeung Fund, which provides financial support to St Patrick’s College students where the father is suffering mental illness.

Tom, it appears, is a natural at the microphone. There’s no standing behind the lectern or reading from prepared notes.

Instead, the 28-year-old strolls casually across the front of the room as he speaks of the anxiety, insomnia and depression he suffered after being drafted to the GWS Giants as the number one pick in 2013.

“I couldn’t sleep that well, I’d sit up at night like we all have at different stages, staring at the ceiling, thinking about tomorrow, thinking about next week, thinking about next year, paralysed by the thought of all of the mistakes I could make in the future,” he said.

Initially told he was ‘just homesick’, Tom set his sights on returning to Melbourne in the hope of shrugging off the nagging feeling and in 2014 – at the age of 18 and having played just three games of AFL football – Tom signed a historic $7 million, seven-year deal with the Western Bulldogs.

But the move back to his home state failed to dissipate his discomfort and, according to Tom, the next two years were riddled with problems including bouts of depression. 

“I’d spend a whole Sunday in bed, Monday as well and at the last moment before I had to be back at the football club to start the week again, I’d drag myself out, jump in the shower and get to the club,” he said.

On the field, Tom’s career was career was flourishing. In June 2015, he received a Rising Star nomination after bagging 4.1 in a thumping 72-point win over the Brisbane Lions, and the following season, Tom helped the Bulldogs to only their second premiership in history and first in 62 years.

“I was never happier in that moment than I was in 2016 in front of the 99, 981 people…

but I do remember one thought that I had and that was…what are they going to say to me now?” he recalled.

Nine weeks, a shoulder reconstruction and ankle clean out later, Tom returned to the club for season 2017. So did his mental health problems.

“I remember it was like a tsunami of emotion that came back as soon as I entered that football club again and honestly speaking in the weeks leading in to that first day of pre-season the sleep turned to rubbish again, the anxiety came back at an absolute rapid rate,” he said.

“The depression came back even worse and I hung on and hung on until in the middle of 2017, I reached a point where I was still playing AFL football at the time, top level, I hadn’t slept for two weeks and I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“I knew in my heart that I couldn’t get through a game of footy, there was no way. I hadn’t slept, I couldn’t possibly get up to play, I was putting myself at risk every time I played a game of football, I was getting injured, I was getting sick, I couldn’t remember things, I couldn’t communicate with other people, I was really just a shell of the human I’d once been.”

It was at this point that Tom made two brave decisions – to go public with his mental illness and to reach out to the club’s psychologist.

“With all the negative thoughts in my mind and probably the darkest moment in my life, the one that stuck, the one that really was seared into my brain was I need help. I need help to do something different, to approach this problem in a different way, otherwise the outcome will continue to be the same, it will continue to get worse and worse,” he said.

Tom, who retired from the AFL in 2019 with two years left on his contract after suffering a back injury, now shares his story with communities across the country.

He does so in the hope of reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and helping others who may be experiencing similar problems.

And while he’s the first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers and that his situation was rather unique, he believes there’s lessons for all in his experience.

“Unfortunately, I learned over and over again, the issues we face today will be the issues we face tomorrow, no matter what happens unless we deal with them,” he said.

“When we’re too happy, too sad or too angry, making life changing decisions doesn’t make any sense. Wait, get to a point where you’re stable and decide whether the right path forward is the one you thought previously.”

Chris Yeung Fund chair Simon Dwyer said it was crucial that conversations about men’s mental health continued within the community.

“Ballarat’s suicide rates among men, especially those over 40, are still above the nation’s average and loneliness for men aged in their 30s and 40s accounts for over 40 per cent of mental health issues for men,” he said.

Established in 2016, the Chris Yeung Fund aims to raise awareness of and provide financial assistance to families in the St Patrick’s College community where the father is suffering mental illness.

To date, the fund has provided fee relief for more than 20 students, ensuring they can remain enrolled at the College despite their financial hardship brought about by illness.

Chris Yeung was a Ballarat boy who attended St Patrick’s College, completing Year 12 in 1981. In his 20s, Chris developed a mental illness which manifested in periods of acute psychosis.

Chris battled his illness for decades but in 2015 he took his own life. Despite his illness, Chris was a qualified accountant and business owner, and much-loved son, father, partner, and brother.