Movember ambassador Alyssa Healy opens up on the mental health challenges facing elite cricketers

It’s safe to say that this WBBL season did not go to plan for Alyssa Healy and the Sydney Sixers, with the competition’s most successful side languishing on the bottom of the ladder for the first time.

However, while Australia’s star wicketkeeper was sidelined from this year’s finals series, she has been putting her time to good use by raising funds for mental health charity Movember, a cause she says she has a “simple” reason for getting behind:

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The Movember Foundation has a clear goal: By 2030, it aims to reduce the number of men dying prematurely by 25 per cent.

In Australia, three out of four suicides are men, and more than six men die by suicide each day. 

With a number of high-profile male athletes having voiced their struggles in recent years, Healy says sport is doing its part to further a conversation about mental health.

“I think high-profile athletes coming out and saying that they’re struggling is a really great thing for society. It sort of normalises those conversations,” she says.

Sport is also an ideal place, Healy says, to model a “team-based” approach to supporting someone who is struggling with their mental health.

“Sport is all about teamwork and camaraderie,” Healy says. “The more we can stick together as a team and look after one another, the better.

Healy adds that, while she has not necessarily had her own mental health struggles, she believes it is all the more important that she is open about the pressures of being an elite athlete.

Ashleigh Gardner fist pumps Alyssa Healy of the Sixers after she scores a half century
Alyssa Healy (right) says the team-based environment of cricket is ideally placed to support someone struggling with their mental health.(Getty Images: Steve Bell)

“I think [the pressure] is something that’s ever-present in every professional athletes’ life,” she explains.

“A big part of it is performance anxiety, and that has a real impact on your everyday life when you’re stressing about your work 24/7.

“It’s almost more important for those of us who can’t necessarily say that they’ve gone through something [major], to stand up and say, ‘You know, it’s OK and I’m here for you. Let’s have a conversation about how I can help you’.”

Women in sport face unique mental health pressures as semi-professional athletes

Healy has also noticed a shift in the pressure placed on women as athletes, especially as women’s sport garners greater levels of coverage and attention.

“You look at the WBBL this season. Every single game was on telly, which is so cool for our sport but with that comes a high level of scrutiny.

“All of a sudden it hits home, that people are watching and commentating on what you’re doing 24/7.

“I think the more that women’s sport grows, the more the level of scrutiny grows.”

This scrutiny, says Healy, often fails to take into account that many women who play sport at the highest level are not fully professional.

“What cricket is doing is great. At the international level, we are full-time and we’re really lucky to do that; we tour a lot, we play a lot.

“But, at the domestic level, it’s still transitioning. More often than not, female athletes, at this point in time, are not fully professional. They’ve got lives outside of cricket and sport that need attention.

“It’s great for women’s sport in this country that it’s almost like a competition between sports to see who can professionalise their sport first. But I think there’s going to be a few wrinkles to iron out over the next five years to ensure that’s a smooth transition.”

Social media exposing athletes to abuse 

Another potential issue for women’s sport, says Healy, is an increasing reliance on social media to market the game.

“Social media is a huge part of our sport. It’s such a great platform for us to show who we are and grow the game.

“In saying that, there are certain dangers about being on social media and copping abuse is definitely one of them; that doesn’t help anybody’s self-esteem or mental health.”

Women often face different types of abuse to men online, including in the context of sport.

Two Australian women's cricketers hold the T20 World Cup trophy as fans go wild behind them.
With increasing media coverage of women’s sport, Healy argues that players are being exposed to abuse on social media.(AAP: Scott Barbour )

Almost half of all Australian women have experienced online harassment, often occurring on social media and online discussion forums.

Women under 30, meanwhile, are particularly vulnerable to online abuse, with more than 75 per cent experiencing harassment.

The risk of abuse is something the 31-year-old is acutely aware of, particularly with some of her younger teammates who are “on social media platforms 24/7”.

“People do take it seriously and that can be quite damaging.”

As one of her sport’s more-confident characters, Healy says her own approach to dealing with abuse online is to “call it out”.

“I like to respond to people every now and then, which probably gets me in trouble more often than not.

“For instance, the other day, someone had a crack at me about smiling after a loss. So I said, ‘I’m trying to enjoy my sport, and [my form] is at rock bottom at the minute, quite literally.’

“But if I can be seen to be enjoying myself, and make sure the young kids around me are having a great time, then, you know, it’s just a game at the end of the day.”

Nonetheless, while Healy is confident in her own ability to deal with online abuse, she says the onus must be on social media companies to moderate content, as well as holding perpetrators to account.

“It’s on the individual to think before they post or tweet or message. Before you hit send, make sure that you’d be happy receiving that feedback from someone else.

“There’s people out there that see it as a sort of faceless platform, just to throw abuse and criticism around. And that’s really not OK.”

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