By Will Hunter
When someone experiences difficulties in their life, the first and most important thing they should do is speak up and seek help.
It’s a lesson that Hallam president Matthew Brew now knows all too well.
Taking the reins of a battling football club is a massive commitment for anybody to undertake, let alone a youngster at the tender age of 22. Combined with the pressures of a demanding job in the finance industry, as well as multiple personal setbacks, and it was a recipe for significant stress.
Ultimately, this constant build-up of pressure led to Brew being hospitalised after a severe panic attack in April 2016, and he was subsequently diagnosed with anxiety.
Brew has shared his story with SFNL Media on the eve of this weekend’s League-wide beyondblue
Round in the hope of shedding some light on the risks of this common mental health condition.
“Leading up to (my hospitalisation) I thought it was all hunky dory when realistically it wasn’t,” Brew revealed.
“Anxiety speaks more about your lack of confidence, lack of self-esteem, and anxiety about not achieving the things you want to achieve.
“It burns a massive hole in your chest and in your head as well and sometimes you sit there and you think you are not good enough.”
According to beyondblue
, anxiety remains the number one mental health condition in Australia, affecting on average one in three women and one in five men during their lifetime.
While anxious feelings are a normal reaction for everyone to stressful pressure situations, for many people like Brew it is much more than that. For those who struggle with anxiety conditions, these anxious feelings seem to occur for no apparent reason and cannot be easily controlled, making it difficult to cope with everyday life.
There are a number of factors that can lead a person to develop anxiety, including stressful events in one’s personal and work life, heavy use of drugs and alcohol, physical health problems and personality traits such as perfectionism and low self-esteem – factors that many young Australians deal with on a daily basis.
But despite its prevalence in Australia, anxiety remains rarely spoken about in mainstream society, particularly when compared to other mental health conditions.
“When people talk about mental health, they suddenly link it to depression, post-traumatic stress, those sort of things, and I think anxiety is a little bit of an unspoken one and no one actually understands if they have anxiety unless they seek a little bit of help for it,” Brew said.
“And that’s where I found out exactly what anxiety was. I knew I had a mental issue, but I didn’t know it was a severe anxiety case.”
Brew joined the Hallam Football Club with a few mates in 2013, hoping for a kick of the footy after two previous knee reconstructions. But after debuting in Round 3 of that year, he unfortunately lasted just a handful of matches before again rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament, requiring a third bout of significant knee surgery and another 12 months on the sidelines.
It was during his rehabilitation that he decided to assist the club administratively, serving on the committee before assuming the presidency in September 2014, initially in a caretaker capacity.
Brew immersed himself fully in the role, but turning around the fortunes of a struggling club proved to be a tough and stressful challenge, particularly for somebody of his age.
When Brew took over the club in late 2014, the Hawks had finished last on the Division 3 ladder with just two wins to its credit. They fared only marginally better the following year – Brew’s first in the top job – winning just three games.
All up, the club had won just 10 senior matches in four seasons since joining the SFNL in 2012 and was languishing in mediocrity. As President, Brew felt under extreme pressure to move the club forward, and his dedication to the task severely impacted his work-life balance.
This proved to be the catalysts of his deteriorating mental state.
“Leading into season 2016 was probably the biggest pressure because I felt, and this is nothing against any of the coaches or anything like that, but I felt like there more pressure on us to perform than we ever had before on a football front,” Brew said.
“I was taking up my own time that I needed to put into myself into the football club, which was probably a detriment to myself. There was no outlet… it was always work into footy, footy into work, those sorts of things, that’s probably what lead to it (the breakdown).
“And the pressures that I felt from a personal level were where I want to take this footy club. And not to say that that’s been a bad thing in anyway, but I wanted to make sure the footy club was getting somewhere and that’s where I got stuck in a deep hole.”
Brew said there were several other personal challenges and lifestyle factors that had contributed to his severe panic attack early last year, many of which would be common risk factors for footballers at all levels.
“There were a few challenges I had in my life, obviously through high school, primary school you’d probably put it back to too, you know, bullying and those sorts of things,” Brew revealed.
“Work, obviously being a main factor in my life... The work pressure was something that really had an impact on me as well.
“I also didn’t realise what the excess alcohol was doing to me, you know, smoking, those sorts of things. I didn’t understand the pressures (I had) because I’m always socialising.
“And it’s common around football clubs because you are always socialising, and there’s always someone with a drink in their hand or smoking a cigarette those sorts of things, and it’s a big factor in the reason why mental health (issues) occur.”
For those that deal with anxiety daily, it can be a difficult thing to overcome, both physically and emotionally.
From an emotional perspective, anxiety sufferers have described a cacophony of negative personal thoughts racing through their mind, often stemming from very minor triggers and snowballing uncontrollably to the point of feelings of utter worthlessness.
Physically, however, many of the symptoms can often be confused with heart attack warning signs, such as tightness in the chest and an irregular heartbeat, which was what lead to Brew being taken to hospital last year.
And dealing with severe symptoms such as these on an ongoing basis can also bring about their own mental challenges.
“Some of the symptoms I had were a heavy head, like really dizzy, my eyes were really blurry… I had one really severe attack and it felt like my heart was beating out of my chest so it felt like I was having a heart attack,” Brew explained.
“That’s what an anxiety attack feels like, it feels like you’re having a heart attack, which then leads to other issues too, like the fear of death and the mental capacity to (deal with that), and it spirals on from there.
“That panic attack was a scary time, but probably for the next three to six months it was probably even scarier because I was trying to control my breathing, you know, my heart rate was always elevated to what I thought was leading into another panic attack.
“So controlling those factors of anxiety and what that brings to you as well was challenging in itself.”
It has now been more than 12 months since his breakdown, and Brew says he is now in a “really good head space” and on the way back to good mental health, but understands his condition is something that will require constant management.
As part of his recovery, Brew attended counselling sessions with an independent mental health professional, who provided expert advice on how to manage his condition.
Brew also enrolled in time management classes, which have helped enormously in providing structure to his life and assisting him to better manage his days. Additionally, he credits the dedicated and hard-working executive team at Hallam for taking on some of the club’s administrative tasks, which have lessened his significant and stressful workload and ensured he now has time for other important aspects of his life.
But perhaps the most influential factor in Brew’s recovery has been the close support network around him. His family fully understood the challenges he had been through and were there for him every step of the way, particularly his mother.
“My mum is one of the greatest women I have ever met, and she was there for me from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep to make sure I was ok, regardless of whether that was just a five-minute conversation about how my day went, or whatever the case may be. She was always there to make sure that I’m ok,” Brew said.
And therein lies the first and most important step to overcoming mental health conditions like depression and anxiety – opening up and speaking to others about your issues.
In retrospect, speaking to someone about the issues in his life is something Brew wishes he had done a lot earlier, which may have helped nipped his problems in the bud before they worsened to breaking point.
And it’s a lesson he shares with the SFNL community in the hope of encouraging others, and particularly men, to learn from his mistakes and to take action to address mental health issues.
“My advice is definitely take some time for yourself. Whether it is depression, anxiety, take some time for yourself. Speak to your loved ones around you for opinions first, and if you feel as though that hasn’t got you somewhere, then definitely seek some medical advice,” he said.
“Looking back on it, I wished I had sought help a couple of years before that definitely, just to talk about things.
“Blokes sometimes are afraid to talk about what their issues have been, or where they are at in life or what they want to achieve.
“Just opening up, and making sure your feelings are out there and not stuck in, because when you bottle it up that’s when your whole life feels like you are crumbling.”
For those suffering depression or anxiety issues, beyondblue support services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Visit beyondblue.org.au for more information.
[caption id="attachment_15308" align="aligncenter" width="500"]
Hallam President Mattherw Brew is now on top in his battle with anxiety.[/caption]