Sad details have emerged of AFL star Danny Frawley’s final months following a coroner’s finding into his tragic death.
Frawley – a coach, commentator and captain of the St Kilda Football Club for nine seasons – died in a car crash in Millbrook in September 2019.
Frawley, 56, had a history of mental health issues, and in the months before his death, his mental state began deteriorating.
Coroner Paresa Spanos said on Tuesday the evidence supported a finding that Frawley took his own life, and his condition before his death appeared to coincide with personal stress and not taking his medication.
In the two years before his death Frawley was seeing a psychiatrist monthly and remained on medication.
By January 2019 he admitted stopping his medication and seeing his doctor.
Frawley’s media presence waned after January 2019, appearing to his wife Anita Frawley to have bruised his ego.
“From about April 2019, she observed that he became increasingly erratic and began to eat and drink in excess,” the coroner said in her finding.
“Mr Frawley stopped turning up to planned bike rides with his friends and was consumed by his own needs with little apparent regard for his family.
“In late June 2019 Mr Frawley’s decision-making was still erratic and his personality had changed.
“He became even more self-absorbed and had gained about 25kg.
“He avoided his family’s Christmas in July celebrations, preferring to spend the time with a country AFL team that he had been coaching.”
Frawley attended what would turn out to be his last appointment with his psychiatrist in September 2019.
His struggles had affected his relationship with his wife.
“Mr Frawley admitted to episodic dark thoughts when he thought about his marriage but vehemently denied any active suicidal intent or plan,” the coroner said.
Frawley had declined an admission to hospital to address his poor sleep and overall mental state.
Mrs Frawley then told her husband they needed to take a break.
But he appeared to be doing well and happily celebrated his birthday with friends and family.
On September 19, 2019, Frawley called his psychiatrist and asked to reschedule his appointment for later that day but never made it.
During his stellar career, Frawley sustained about 20 concussions, including losing consciousness, severe headaches and vision problems.
A post-mortem study of his brain found he was suffering from low stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a form of brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head.
CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death, is linked to mood and behavioural changes and occasionally cognitive and memory impairment.
Ms Spanos said there was no sign from the evidence which stressor caused or contributed to Frawley’s death.
However, she found CTE was a potential contributor to the depression Frawley suffered in the years leading up to it.
Ms Spanos also highlighted the lack of knowledge about how much CTE produces neurological dysfunction, partly because of an absence of research in Australia and internationally.
“Like many players, Mr Frawley began his football career in his formative years and likely experienced head trauma while his brain was still developing,” the coroner said.
“As such, it is difficult to evaluate the contribution of CTE to personality, behaviours, any cognitive deficits, or emotion over a lifetime.
“As CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, it is impossible to establish at what point CTE began and whether this coincided with any changes in mood or behaviour.”
Ms Spanos has recommended the AFL and the AFL Players Association “actively encourage” players to donate their brains after death to the Australian Sports Brain Bank for research into CTE.
“(It would) make a meaningful contribution to research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy and thereby improve the safety of future generations of footballers and others engaged in contact sports,” she said.
Ms Spanos commended the AFL for its support thus far of research into player health and safety.
The AFL Commission and AFL Players Association told the investigation that in the decades following Frawley’s career, significant changes were made to AFL guidelines to prevent and manage concussion and head injuries.
Both organisations also endorsed a joint initiative by the Australian Institute of Sport, the Australian Medical Association, the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians and Sports Medicine Australia contending more research is needed to understand CTE.
Frawley played 240 AFL games between 1984 to 1995.