Making mental health a priority

15 May 2023 Written by Sarah Marinos

Racing has long taken care of the horses at the heart of the industry. Increasingly, a spotlight is being shone on the mental health and wellbeing of the people involved in the industry, too.

Melissa Sell has spent 25 years in the racing industry. Alongside her husband, Mick, she works long hours at the Kyneton property where they train horses and raise their three children. Pragmatic and resilient, it takes a lot to faze Melissa.

But sometimes life becomes too difficult to navigate alone, as Melissa discovered in 2018. Melissa was devastated when close friend, Alicia Little, was killed by her partner at her Kyneton home. Alicia had previously lived with Melissa and Mick and the two women saw each other most days. They spoke on the phone shortly before Alicia died.

“Parts of the days after Alicia died are blank. Neither Mick nor I were in the best mental space but each morning we had to get up and feed and train the horses. We had to speak to clients and look after our children. Alicia’s home was across the road from the track and as I rode around the track I had to go past the house. Mick and I did our best to support each other but it was a brutal time,” recalls Melissa.

A few months after Alicia’s death, in early 2019, Mick lost one of his closest friends, horse trainer Frank Conlan, who died in a riding accident. At that point Melissa turned to psychologist and Racing Victoria’s Participant Wellbeing Manager, Kirra Fitzgerald. 

“Kirra called Mick and I multiple times and left messages letting us know that she was there when we needed her. One day not long after Frank died, I remember going out into the yard, hiding behind a tree, calling Kirra and saying we needed help. Mick and I were exhausted,” says Melissa.

“Kirra and I spoke for nearly two hours while she worked out the kind of help that I needed. I didn’t want anything airy fairy, I just needed a way to release all the anger, hurt and frustration.”

Kirra joined Racing Victoria five years ago as part of the organisation’s response to promoting the mental health and wellbeing of industry participants. 

The Jockey Assistance Program had already been established by Racing Victoria and the Victorian Jockeys Association and it continues to offer valuable support to jockeys and their families. The free, confidential counselling service can also refer participants to a range of professionals including doctors, physiotherapists, dietitians and financial advisers.

Kirra’s focus is on supporting the mental health of the 3000 or so trainers and stable hands in Victoria.

For Melissa, within days of that first phone conversation, Kirra organised a psychologist for her to talk to and she arranged art therapy sessions for Melissa's youngest daughter, who’d spent a lot of time with Alicia.

“During the first meeting the psychologist let me cry for half an hour and then she took me outside, gave me a big mallet and let me beat the hell out of a drum. That was what I needed! I saw her for six months,” says Melissa.

Racing Victoria organises regular initiatives to promote positive mental health and to encourage participants to ask for help during challenging times. It financially supports Stableline, a free and independent psychological support service for participants and immediate family. 

“Stableline removes some of the barriers that can come with getting mental health support, like having to go to a doctor to get a mental health care plan and finding a psychologist who bulk bills or doesn’t have large out-of-pocket costs. Stableline is a direct and totally confidential service. People just call and will quickly be linked to a psychologist for four free sessions,” explains Kirra.

A Trainer Wellbeing Champion network has also been a success. 

“Our Trainer Wellbeing Champions are trainers from 20 different tracks around the state. They have done an introductory mental health course and so know how to broach the topic of mental health with people who might be struggling. They can link those people to me and I can help guide them towards the support they need,” says Kirra. 

“The racing industry is demanding and people within the industry are resilient. They face and overcome adversity many times, but when things become too much you can seek support and still be resilient. For too long there has been a stigma around mental health and asking for help but, thankfully, that stigma is being broken down.” 

Melissa Sell is deeply grateful for the support she received during one of the most challenging times in her life.

“In our industry there’s a belief that you have to put your head down, arse up and tough it out,” she says. 

“That needs to change.”