Nathan Thompson was a professional AFL footballer, playing a total of 179 AFL games – 119 at Hawthorn from 1998 to 2004, and 60 with the Kangaroos from 2005 to 2008.
In 2004, Nathan spoke publicly about his experience of depression and since becoming an Ambassador for beyondblue has played an important role in raising community awareness about the prevalence of the illness.
Nathan has worked as a media commentator for the Channel 9 Sunday Footy Show and Today Show, SEN radio, AFLLive and Sportsday.
Nathan shares his story
“I think I’d known for years that something wasn’t right, but I never thought it was depression. I felt like I ‘should’ be happy. Here I was – a successful AFL footballer, a great career, strong, fit and healthy. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t mentally healthy – and that is just as important as anything else. “I had constant negative thoughts about myself. I’d go to bed at night and I couldn’t sleep. I would stare at the roof and ruminate over things – mainly everyday stresses or thoughts that we all have, but I couldn’t switch them off. I’d end up shaking and in a lather of sweat. I’d finally get to sleep, but then I’d have to get up to go to work – so I was exhausted and tired all the time.
“When I was at my worst, suicidal thoughts were a day-to-day proposition for me. I didn’t think I was ever actually going to hurt myself – but I just couldn’t stop the thoughts. I’d spend the whole day thinking about it and then at night, I’d break down and fall into a heap.”
These issues came to the forefront in 2004 while Nathan was Vice Captain of the Hawthorn Football Club.
“I’d had a pretty bad year health wise. It got to the point where my health was terrible. I would turn up to games hoping I would actually break my leg so I didn’t have to keep going on.
“I couldn’t see how I could actually tell someone how bad my thoughts had become. It got to the point where I didn’t feel strong enough to keep going and I was concerned that I was going to hurt myself – I no longer had the strength to deal with it.
“I felt so ashamed – I thought ‘I’m a strong person, I can get through this’, but I felt so weak and tired all the time. I’d just had enough.
“I was at training one night when I collapsed – I broke down and I couldn’t get off the bench. The coach took me into his office and said ‘right, tell me what’s going on.’ And I pretty much just told everything to him – all the thoughts I was having and the danger I was in.
“He was amazing and told me my health was more important than the game and the club, and said he would support me in any way he needed to.
“He was a football coach, not a psychologist, so he probably found it hard to know what to do. But when he saw me break down at training, he made my health a priority. I owe him a lot of gratitude for the way he dealt with it.”
Nathan telling his coach was the first step in starting to talk about what he was experiencing and he went home that night and told his partner and family.
“The next day, the football club held a press conference. I wanted to be honest with everyone and I thought if I tell the whole world, I have nothing left to hide.
“I was such a confused person at the time – I had no idea why I was feeling the way I was, but I didn’t think it was depression. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t embarrassed.
“Telling my family, friends, team and the public was a great first step. But it’s not like telling people made me feel better – relieved yes, but not better. I felt like I had let a lot of people down. It was a pretty tough day, but I got through it.
“I was diagnosed with clinical depression. It has been an interesting road to recovery. One of the most important things I have learnt is the necessity of taking control of my own health.
“Sometimes we wait and hope that someone is just going to fix us. But it’s a journey and you are the one that has to take the first step.
“I have seen a psychologist and psychiatrist and I now understand a lot more about my own makeup. Because I understand it better, I can cope better. I certainly know when I am struggling and I can start putting things into place a lot quicker to stop me from letting my health slip.
“When I left football in 2007, I had time to reflect on those five years of being depressed, have a good look at myself and think about how I wanted to take care of my health and set some long-term goals. I really worked on being healthy and confident.
“I’ve been working with beyondblue as an Ambassador for several years. I speak to people throughout Australia about my personal experience and my journey to recovery, to help eradicate the stigma and encourage people to look after their mental health – because it’s just as important as physical health.
“It’s important we understand that depression is really common – there are so many people who are struggling with the same problems. If we create awareness about depression and get rid of this stigma, then it will become OK for more people to talk about it and then more people will talk earlier, seek help earlier and hopefully not reach the point where they break down.
“If something isn’t right, find out what’s going on. Be proactive with yourself and go and see a doctor or talk to someone you trust. I never did – and my health and my life were dangling on a knife’s edge.
“Depression is an illness, but it’s one that you can get help for – and recover from. “If you are struggling, don’t be afraid to admit it. Sometimes you have to put up your hand and say I need help.”