It was once a taboo subject and to be associated with it was a fate almost worse than death – those affected were treated differently to everyone else, stigmatised, humiliated and traumatised just because no-one could physically see what was wrong with them. Even those in the medical profession were sceptical, yet in current society it’s seen as just as big a problem as obesity and who slept with whom in EastEnders last night. Nothing about mental illness has changed, but the way it is perceived and whom it affects has altered a huge amount.
In sport, however, is still very much in the foetal stage of development. Even in early 2006 many people were questioning Marcus Trescothick’s decision to leave the England cricket team’s tour of India early due to a ‘virus.’ It has later transpired that this was the start of his battle with depression as a result of the hectic lifestyle he led, but at the time everyone was inquiring why he felt the need to withdraw from the side. He fought hard to overcome the problem, appearing against the Sri Lankans just a few months after leaving India, but was still criticised by members of the press who felt he wasn’t taking his international career seriously. Looking back now, that was a truly disgusting view to take – here was a player fighting outrageously hard to beat a mental illness that could end his life and yet there were people holding an inquest as to whether he should be allowed back into the England team or not. It shows how far our understanding and tolerance of such problems has increased in just the last seven years.
There are some out there who believe that professional sportsmen and women have it easy and that they don’t know what it really is to feel depressed. One argument I often hear is ‘these sporting stars are being paid millions to do what they love, how on earth can they have mental issues?’ From the outside it seems a valid argument – being paid well above the national average to do something you love whilst getting all the latest equipment and celebrity attention in exchange for a few press conferences and charity events… That seems like a wonderful lifestyle! But for those actually in that position it is often quite the opposite. The time available to themselves and their families is limited, while the pressures of being away from home for months on end can easily take their toll on both the physical and emotional state. There are also some professionals who get paid less than your city trader or local MP and are in the same boat as every ‘normal’ person, fighting to keep paying the bills and the mortgage. While some may be able to cope with this others could easily slip into a depressed state from which it’s hard to emerge from.
Looking on Wikipedia it seems as if I’m wittering on about a problem that only affects a tiny minority of sporting stars. The website stating that less than 15 famous sporting stars have been diagnosed with ‘major depressive disorder.’ These include the footballer Stan Collymore, Mike Tyson and, most tragically of all, German goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life in 2009 after battling the condition for 6 years. Yet there are so many more who have suffered with depression and similar illnesses throughout their careers – Trescothick is one, with former England teammates Steve Harmison and Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff both retrospectively admitting they also struggled to even get up in the mornings. These stars are not reporting their problems to anyone else, whether it be through fear of losing their place in team or not wanting to admit there is something wrong with them. Or worse, because they fear of what others will say about them. Even in 2013, when the study of psychology is so much more advanced than ever before and the treatments for mental illness extremely effective, our heroes cannot admit that they are struggling with depression because they don’t want people to change their perceptions of them. They aren’t robots, they are human beings just like we are and should be allowed to have faults without everyone laying into them.
One thing that really worries me personally from the lack of coverage of mental illness in sport is what it could do to those not in the public spotlight, those young players fighting to make a name for themselves and break into the professional game. Not only do they have to win the battle to play alongside their more experienced clubmates, they often have to also deal with exams, funding themselves, moving away from home, finding a place to stay, paying the bills and maintaining relationships. While this may not be as pressurised as being the centre of attention all the time and spending months in foreign countries, all of these things can build up and lead to the development of depression, which could ruin their careers before they have even started. Because they are new to the game their troubles can often be overlooked and the help they need denied. I think there should be a much greater focus on the mental states of those coming through the ranks to professional standard to help them cope with the demands that being a sportsman brings. Some may not need it but there are others, myself included, who will have a greater chance of developing mental disorders like depression because of their personality and/or other social factors. We are the ones who will need guiding from a very early stage in order to stop ourselves falling into a deep oblivion, hating the games we love and, potentially, taking our own lives.