AFLW 2022: Steph Chiocci on mental health battle, panic attacks

Steph Chiocci has for the first time bravely faced the debilitating mental health battle that has left her crying every day and suffering from unnerving panic attacks.

The panic attacks would tighten her grip on Steph Chiocci until she passed out.

The Collingwood co-captain, who lived alone in Melbourne, fell intermittently unconscious, consumed by an overwhelming sense of anxiety, fear and dread that often came quickly.

When she didn’t answer a call, close friends sometimes feared for her safety and rushed to check on her.

She had denied it.

It had built up, her mental anguish, before the floodgates finally opened last spring.

Chiocci, 33, cried on the way to training. She would cry while training.

She would go home to her golden retriever Bentley and cry again.

“I was a shell of myself,” Chiocci tells the Herald Sun of her mental health battle, which took its toll late last year, and in her AFL women’s season earlier this year.

“I was really struggling. I had problems in training, I had trouble getting out of bed. I cried most days.”

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“Saved” by football and family, Chiocci has spoken bravely for the first time about her depression diagnosis, her journey back to health and her determination to shed a light on mental health on the eve of her seventh AFLW season as captain of Collingwood.

As Chiocci geared up for the final AFLW season, the black dog of depression consumed almost every waking moment – taking a grueling mental and physical toll that tainted friendships, work and football on a daily basis.

“I’ve never had thoughts (of suicide) as such, but I’ve had panic attacks and there have been times when I’ve passed out,” Chiocci reveals.

“I was living alone and one of my good friends (former AFLW player) Katie Loynes who lives around the corner tried to call me and when I didn’t answer she was really concerned. But I assured her and those around me that that was never an option. I would never want to leave this life.

“It didn’t go that far, but it was a fight.

“It’s a constant feeling of nausea. It’s like your body is eating itself from the inside out. I felt empty and it shot through me.

“The weight loss and the fatigue and then having to go to football and work was just a real struggle.”

The founding player admits she initially refused to seek treatment, particularly medication, but said it changed her life.

“I think there’s still a bit of a stigma about mental illness, and I think what we’re talking about is that it’s the people who are happy and cheerful and often in control of their lives (that are affected),” she said.

“But this is a real example of that. I think it’s really important. If it can help someone with their own struggles, then I’ll do my job.”


CHIOCCI thought she was fine.

But things started to take a turn for the worse last September, before others noticed the changes.

Withdrawn, snappy. Excited and obviously losing weight at an unhealthy rate.

It was a phone call from teammate Chloe Molloy to Chiocci’s best friend Renee to raise a flag, which sparked a soft word or two – things weren’t right. The girls worried.

“I was prompted in September last year to search for my soul a little,” says the magpie.

“I’ve been with Jacqui Louder, our club sports psychologist, for six or seven years – before she was at Collingwood – and she knows me really well.

“I remember having a conversation with her afterwards and I wasn’t myself. I really had problems. I had problems in training, I had trouble getting out of bed. I cried most days. My future was uncertain and your age also plays a role. I thought I had my life set up and ready to go.

“We were stuck in pre-season and I had very good support from the club. I was struggling to get out of the car to go to practice but when I got there I felt this warmth and love.

“I had spoken to my close friends outside of football, to Maddy Haydar, the club’s player development manager, my close friends at the club, and it just got to the point where it was affecting me so much that I wasn’t training properly couldn’t and couldn’t concentrate.

“My mind was distracted – I wasn’t living in the moment. I didn’t want to do that to the club.

“I had lost four or five kilos, I was frail. I just couldn’t even get up and be my usual self.

“Renee really is my rock and that was probably something I needed to hear. I can’t thank her enough.”

The “Choch” they knew was bubbly and spirited.

Chiocci looks now and was “embarrassed” by some of her behaviors over the last season as she navigated the turmoil of her mental health.

Chiocci, a key character in the upcoming Disney+ documentary series Fearless: The Inside Story of the AFLW, which follows four teams throughout its final season, including Collingwood, said she was hit right between the eyes as her issues surfaced .

“The behaviors I saw — I was angry and sometimes irrational,” she said.

“It’s not in my nature. That was a bit of a shock when I thought about it.

“Things like anger, frustration. I am not. I can stand up for my teammates and be assertive when provoked, but I found some of that behavior really embarrassing and uncharacteristic.”


THE ELSTER thought she had everything under control.

But as she continued to work with club members, a recommendation came to see the AFL’s sports psychiatrist.

She didn’t think she needed it, but it turned out to be life-changing.

“I didn’t want to, but I knew I needed help,” Chiocci said.

“I struggled with everyday life.

“It was the best decision I’ve made.”

Chiocci firmly resisted one suggestion – to try drugs.

But finally convinced, she started on December 6, 2021 – her 33rd birthday.

“I remember it as clear as day. It basically had an immediate effect,” the school teacher said.

“I’m very grateful for my job – they knew I was struggling and filled a lot of the gap. And then when I went to practice I was so mentally exhausted that when I came to practice I just walked out and was alone. Most likely crying and then trying to get it out of my system before the session started. Then I would come home to an empty house and cry again.

“Because of the medication, I was much more balanced emotionally. It just made so much sense. It’s something I’ve suppressed in various forms for many, many years.

“My moods were more balanced. It balanced me and I was able to train better, think more clearly and immediately became more present.”


FOOTBALL turned out to be Chiocci’s “savior”.

As she worked her way through her darkest days, teammates were the first on the phone or with a knowing nod or a hug in the gym or on the track – many of them navigating their own troubles off the field, which the co-captain acknowledges was the hitherto most tumultuous AFLW season.

“The football club was my lifesaver,” she says.

“I’m a seasoned person and although it was really difficult to actually get to training, once I was there and processed my tears and my emotions, I tried to flip the switch, which was really difficult.

“I knew my job as a leader was to lead. The girls knew I had problems… I’m not afraid of being vulnerable. But I had a job to do and Footy was my job and that saved me.

“I’ve been with like-minded people — girls like Ruby Schleicher, Sarah Rowe, Erica Fowler, Bri Davey — they’ve just been a constant support to me.”

Weekends were often spent at home with family – her father Rob was a noted pillar of support and smiles thanks to niece Frankie and godson Nate.

Collingwood’s season ended with an elimination final against Brisbane – which had been delayed after a Covid outbreak at the Magpies that rocked the team.

“We teamed up (amid the hits of the season),” says Chiocci.

“We talk about being family and I know a lot of teams do that, but we really are. If the girls hadn’t been there for me, I don’t know how I would have fared.

“All of that just electrified us and I think that makes us very special.”

There are still triggers for Chiocci as she finds her new normal, almost getting to know herself again and calming down.

“I’m comfortable with who I am,” she affirms.

“I enjoy my own company. I was never really alone.

“It’s nice now, and nice that I like to go home and spend time with Bentley, read, go for walks by myself. Things I’ve never done because I’ve always been with people. It sounds simple, but for me it was a really big deal.

“I’m really optimistic that I’ll go back to the best version of myself.”

Originally released as an AFL women’s star, Steph Chiocci opens up about her debilitating battle with depression – and how football ‘saved’ her AFLW 2022: Steph Chiocci on mental health battle, panic attacks

Nate Jones

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