Steph Chiocci doesn't want to stop talking about mental health.

It's an intrinsic part of her life, and for the St Kilda veteran, sharing her story is important to help others who may have had similar experiences.

Around 18 months ago, Chiocci spoke publicly about her experiences with anxiety and depression, and seeking professional help, and was overwhelmed with the exclusively positive response from the football world.

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But mental health isn't linear, things can spike when least expected and triggers can sometimes be impossible to pinpoint.

Early last year, Chiocci was hospitalised with what she thought was a major stroke.

It turned out to be an debilitating panic attack.


"It wasn't a stroke, but that's what the symptoms reflected for me. It turns out it was just a major panic attack," Chiocci told

"I had all the tests, they tested my heart, they did the stroke test, I even had a brain MRI, I was that convinced I wasn't well.

"In consultation with my psychiatrist – Dr Ranjit Menon, who I've been seeing for the past few years – he explained to me what was going on. That we have triggers, and sometimes they're subconscious, so we don't really understand what they are.

"I can identify triggers in my life, and we can avoid or deal with them as they come, but when they're subconscious and you don't know what's going on, that's really scary."

Steph Chiocci prior to last year's Round 3 clash against Port Adelaide at RSEA Park. Photo: AFL Photos.

Chiocci was initially reluctant to use medication as one of her mental health management tools, but acknowledged that, like with other health challenges, mental health practitioners may recommend medication in certain situations.

"After I changed medication, it's settled over the past year, which has been really good. I speak to [Dr Menon] whenever I need to, and I'm very well supported by the club psychologist, Bree (Van Ryswyk)," she said.

I think it's really important to speak about. I literally thought I was dying, that day. I ended up in emergency and it was good to get the information as to why that was happening and understand it a little bit better.

- Steph Chiocci

Chiocci's most crucial mental health management technique is exercise, but that's difficult to do when you've torn your ACL, as she experienced in round six last year while attempting to come to an abrupt stop and avoid a tackle.

It's her first knee reconstruction in 17 years of playing football, which she considers lucky given both her brothers have suffered the same injury.

Chiocco is a keen runner and with that outlet removed, she's found solace in other forms of exercise, as well as among a group of AFLW players who tore their ACLs around the same time.

The 35-year-old said she didn't mentally "break down" after the injury, attributing the fact she could contribute off the field – assisting midfield coach Lachie Harris as the Saints pushed for a finals berth – to helping her still feel valued as a teammate.

"Not once did I consider retirement. Katie Loynes (former AFLW player and close friend) said to me that I'd never be satisfied if that was my last game," Chiocci said.

"Bri Davey, Brit Bonnici (former teammates) to name a couple, I've had conversations and dialogue with them about it. Katie Loynes has done multiple (knees).

"There's been a really good support network. I was in conversations with Catherine Brown from the Hawks, Jade Pregelj, Keely Coyne, Daria Bannister – who's absolutely flying at the moment. I've been touching base to see how they are going with their injuries and their rehab, and I've had lots of support from the club.

Steph Chiocci and Georgia Patrikios during the final game of the 2023 AFLW season against Carlton at Ikon Park. Photo: AFL Photos.

"But to not be able to exercise, release those endorphins and keep fit was what I really struggled with the most. I think if you asked our S&C (strength and conditioning staff) and doctor and physio, I annoyed them a lot in the early days, because I just wanted to get moving and be active to make sure my knee was OK, but also to keep fit and healthy.

"Like anything, there are ways around it. I've got to love the bike, the rowing machine, and now I'm a full gym junkie which is really strange, because in the first eight seasons of my career, I hardly ever touched a weight. Now I'm in the gym four times a week, five sessions, intro to running and things like that.

"It was definitely something I struggled with, because running had kept my mental health in check and made me feel good about myself."

Chiocci, a high school teacher, is back in the PE classroom on a part-time basis over the off-season, working the three days through the middle of the week, with her extra-long weekend devoted to rehab and normal life.

She's not afraid to share her mental health management techniques with her students, either, and has also fallen in love with reading fiction books to help destress and keep her mind occupied, estimating she's bought 11 books – most along the crime/thriller genre – this year alone.

"I'm super organised, which can be a good thing, but can also add to the anxiety. I like to plan ahead, especially in my rehab. Ask anyone at the club, and I'm meticulous. If things change, I really struggle with that. I'm doing a lot of work on controlling what I can control, and it's going to be OK if things change," Chiocci said.

"If I'm talking publicly or in a group session, I do little things with my hands, like tap each fingertip on one hand with the same thumb, backwards and forwards, little counting on my fingers.

"A lot of the ones I do with the kids is distracting yourself – I teach them to 'find five things in the room that are blue', just little things like that. And if it gets too much, just deep breaths and a bit of box breathing (e.g. count to four while breathing in, hold breath for seven, breathe out for eight).

It's also very important to talk to people if you're feeling that way. I'm not afraid to say how I'm feeling, and talk things out with significant people.

- Steph Chiocci

"It's funny, because when I'm at training or on the footy field or being active, I very rarely feel anxious. I try to keep my mind ticking over."

St Kilda will celebrate Spud's Game on Thursday night in its clash with Collingwood, a chance to recognise the advocacy work of club legend Danny 'Spud' Frawley and raise money for the Danny Frawley Centre, a mental and physical health facility at the Saints' Moorabbin base which is open to the entire community.

While the Saints men's players will be featuring in the game itself, the women will also be present on the night as a full-club event.

"So many girls will be volunteering their time to help raise funds and get donations for the Danny Frawley Centre, obviously they do a lot of work with mental fitness. There's a lot of programs that they run at the facility there to help people in need," Chiocci said.

"I'm super proud to be a part of Spud's Game. I think it's our duty to be the voice for very important cause and if we can help reduce the stigma around mental ill-health and continue to honour Danny's legacy, I think we're doing a pretty good job.

"It's really big, and what better way to kick off round two than against the reigning premiers for a massive game – in more ways than one."

To donate and help fund life-saving mental health programs, click here.

To secure your seat at Spud’s Game call 9967 4388 or visit today.