Heath Black

Reporter: Mark Gibson

He's reached the heights of fame. He's done the walk of shame. Now Heath Black is coming clean. You've never heard the real story, until now.

Heath Black was a fresh faced teenager when he joined the AFL in 1997. During 12 years at the top, he hid a dark secret.

"I didn't know who to go to, you're an AFL footballer, the perception is that you're mentally strong." Heath was anything but.."Heath Black to bring it in, runner up in the best and fairest at the Dockers last season."

This game for St Kilda against Collingwood in 2002, brought his crippling anxiety to a head. Heath says "I couldn't breathe, I was feeling ill, I vomited, it was coming out of the other end as well and I thought to myself how, in 5 minutes, how am I going to get myself together, play in front of 50,000 people."

Black got 17 touches that day.. he went on to play 192 games, but his mental health would get worse."In the last two years of my career I was medicated for depression and anxiety. The writing was on the wall and I needed to get out because mentally I couldn't cope." When he retired in 2008.. mayhem. Heath says "I went all out and pretty much just destroyed myself."

Heath was lucky to survive a Fremantle footy trip to Thailand. With a skinful of beers and a bad attitude, he was kicked out of a strip club. "I was disrespectful to one of the strippers up on stage and lo and behold it was the owner's wife and I was asked to leave and I left and he pulled a gun on me."

"What did you do?"

Heath says "I rushed him and got into a bit of a scuffle and I reckon honestly if I had've got the gun off him I probably would've shot him.And that was day one a five day trip which I can hardly remember."

Divorced, depressed and retired. Heath hit the bottle. "Usually by about 11 o'clock I'd be drinking. 11am? Yep. And how much would you drink? Anywhere between 15 and 20 stubbies."

There were very public criminal convictions.. and plenty of drunken punch ups that didn't make the news. "The perception of me through that period was probably he's gone nuts, he's an alcoholic, he's a bully, he's a thug, but deep down I was a person that was actually misdiagnosed with a mental illness and going through a huge amount of trouble."

"How do you feel when google Heath Black and you get drink driving charges and assaults and being called a thug, is that hard to cop?"

"My son's old enough, he's on the internet now and I know for a fact he would've googled my name, there's no doubt about it..I'll deal with it, I did it and I'll take it to my grave so to speak, my actions, but my behaviour wasn't the behaviour that you see now."

"Where do you think you would've ended up if you didn't get the right help?"

"One thing that I thought of was a jail cell would be pretty safe for me and I was doing a fair job of trying to get there."

"I can't even explain how brave it is of him, the lead up even to this interview today and the anxiety about being put out there again." Today, Black is back on track. Engaged to Asha, living just outside Bunbury, working at a desalination plant. But he says his mental health remains a struggle."I think it's important to show people that, as I said before, with the right support group, medication and psychiatrist you can beat it, not beat it, live with it."

"Honestly even I thought that he was using the mental illness thing as a copout I thought it was a way for him to say to me this is my excuse, this is why I'm behaving this way." Then last year, the proper diagnosis and medication.

Heath says mental illness in AFL clubs is more common than you'd think. "I would believe anywhere between, out of the 44, 4 to 7 players I would have thought would be medicated with some sort of condition."

And he has a message for his critics. "They haven't walked in my shoes, they haven't walked in Brendan Fevola's shoes, they haven't walked in Charlie Sheen's shoes, these sort of people are misinterpreted, they're obviously not rightly medicated, they haven't got a support group, they're high profile and they're just lambs to the slaughter."

The 31 year old is putting the finishing touches to a book, simply called Black, to be launched at a charity ball next month. He says it's for mental health patients without a public voice. "This is for them and that's the real key here, not for me, cos I don't need to be here."

Further Details

Heath will speak at the "Men In Black" Ball and release excerpts from his upcoming book.

The Ball is at Perth's Hyatt Hotel on Saturday, June 18.

For tickets, call 1300 175 388 or 132 849.