SANFL: Sturt captain Zane Kirkwood reveals mental health issues to raise awareness
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Dual Magarey Medallist Zane Kirkwood remembers being so disoriented by anxiety that he had to phone Sturt’s head trainer Nick Swingler and ask him to retrieve him.
The inspirational captain, who led the Double Blues to grand-final glory twice, was lost driving to training at Unley Oval and needed to be rescued.
“He had to come and get me from the middle of nowhere – I did not know where I was,” Kirkwood said.
He’d had a panic attack. It was not uncommon – he had been having those traumatic moments during games all season and had hidden it well from the outside world.
On the eve of the SANFL season in March, Kirkwood was forced to walk away from his job and was too afraid to leave his home. He was so smothered by mental-health issues, he completely shut down. The champion onballer would even forget how to walk, getting so “worked up” and nervous when panic would strike.
“I would shut down, did not want to talk to anyone,” Kirkwood, 28, said. “I’d not want to leave the house and had very low confidence.
“It is different for everyone. Some people need to do more to get over it, some people shut down like me. There might be similar symptoms but different triggers. For me, I could not go out, shopping malls scared me, they still do. I would forget how to walk.”
Just a week after AFL legend Danny Frawley, who had long suffered from depression, died in a car crash, Kirkwood opened up on the mental-health problems that have plagued him since being diagnosed with depression and anxiety in primary school. He said he was tired of hiding from the issue.
He has also gone public to promote his trek from Perth to Adelaide starting on October 19, when he will cycle, run and ride his skateboard to raise awareness for mental health. A GoFundMe page has also been established to raise funds for research.
Kirkwood, who is known for his on-field courage, said he had felt ashamed and not wanting to burden anyone talking about his health because of the stigma.
“It is nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “I’ve learnt about the factors which cause mental illness and it is about working with it and finding ways to deal with it.
“Not wanting to leave home, to physically move, having panic attacks, I’d had enough and was tired of hiding from it. I’m no different to anyone else; I’ve just got something going on and trying to handle it.
“(Former Port Adelaide champion) Tim Ginever has been my mentor for a little bit now. I catch up and speak to him regularly. He summed it up perfectly – it is no different to someone taking medication.
“It just has the title, the stigma. I want to be seen now as being no different to having a hamstring injury.”
Kirkwood spoke to Sturt coach Nathan Grima and football manager Chris Trapp about his issues in December. Midway through the season, he felt comfortable telling teammates. He wanted to speak up because that had been his problem.
“I’d had depression since primary school and kept it to myself,” he said. “It is not good bottling it up because it erupts into something quite big.
“The boys were supportive and I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.”
While working tirelessly around the ground, as has always been his way, he could subdue his problems. It was when he came to the bench for a rest, or at the quarter and half-time breaks when the panic attacks would return.
Kirkwood mentions the aftermath of a game when he was frustrated he had missed two kicks, working himself into a “state”. Then his frustration grew more pronounced from thinking he was being selfish because the team had won and that was how he was thinking. Again, he shut down.
“I had to take a back seat to the captaincy halfway through the season and Jack (Stephens) took over because it was starting to get on top of me.
“By the end of the season, I’d started to do a different routine before games to stay calm. Coming to the bench, or at the quarter-time breaks, I’d wrap my head in a towel and try to slow down my thinking.
“Nick (Swingler) helped me tremendously with that and I can’t thank him enough; all he did game day and behind the scenes to try to keep me going.
“I had great support from my family, my partner Brooke (Chaplin) and some mates. The footy club was really good and that helps.”
Kirkwood wants no sympathy, noting he has a support network in place.
He wants people struggling not to be afraid or ashamed to reach out to family and friends and for people to just listen and be there for them.
“In March this year, I could not leave home,” he said.
“I built up from walking the block and then going to the shop to now be riding from Perth to Adelaide.
“People can take it step by step in everyday life.”
Originally published as ‘So panicked, I’d forget how to walk’: Star lifts lid on demons