Hope is always close at hand
T he news that England cricketer Michael Yardy was forced to quit the World Cup because of depression may have left some sports fans scratching their heads. Why would a top sportsman suffer from depression? They're in top physical condition, enjoy the admiration of the public, are high-achieving highly-motivated individuals with clearly defined goals and earn a good deal more than the average citizen. Give us a break lads.
That's the kind of attitude which was evident in 2004 when then Aston Villa manager John Gregory ridiculed Stan Collymore when the player was suffering from depression on the somewhat dubious grounds that the striker wasn't a single mother living in a council flat. Or when New Orleans Saints manager Jim Haslett told the severely troubled running back Ricky Williams "stop being a baby and just play football."
There was more of this bullying ignorance dressed up as bluff common sense last week when Geoff Boycott opined that Yardy was actually quitting the England squad because he simply wasn't good enough and had been upset by Boycott's criticism of his bowling.
This idea that people suffering from depression should 'pull themselves together' and stop malingering is not confined to the world of sport. Partly it's because of the language we use when talking about our moods. We've all said at one time or another when feeling slightly down in the dumps, 'I'm feeling a bit depressed'. But there's as big a difference between 'feeling a bit depressed' and suffering from depression as there is between having a head cold and contracting swine flu.
What makes Boycott's attitude disheartening is that there's no excuse for anyone involved in English cricket to be ignorant about the consequences of depression. Because the sportsman who's done more than anyone else to increase awareness of depression is also an English cricketer, one whose world came tumbling down less than five years ago.
Marcus Trescothick looked like becoming one of England's greatest batsmen. Man of the one-day series when England played India in 2002, Pakistan in 2003 and the West Indies in 2004, he'd been their second top scorer when they defeated Australia in the great Ashes series of 2005. But in February 2006 he returned home from England's tour of India and in November of the same year quit the tour of Australia. He has not played for his country since.
What had happened? Trescothick recalled: "There were times when I didn't know how I was going to go on. I didn't know how I was going to come through the pain. Getting through the night seemed so difficult; getting through the rest of my life impossible . . . I felt myself fighting for breath and for a single moment's peace. 'God make it stop, please'. I started sweating heavily. I started shaking. I felt myself losing control, I was petrified." This outstanding cricketer had been floored by clinical depression.
Trescothick has fought back bravely against his illness. In 2009, he was voted Cricketer of the Year by his fellow professionals after topping the County Championship scoring chart. And, perhaps more importantly, the previous year he had won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award for his autobiography Coming Back To Me which dealt intelligently and courageously with his depression and lifted the veil on one of the great taboo subjects in sport. It's not all been plain sailing -- he had to pull out of a major club tournament in India two years ago -- but Trescothick is an heroic figure.
We don't know if sportsmen are more susceptible to depression than other people but there are suggestions that they find the disease particularly difficult to deal with. In the words of Californian academic Michael Messner, who's written extensively and well on the sociology of sport, "Therapists will tell you that it's much harder for men to recognise the signs of depression and then to ask for help. Quintuple that for a famous man. Being an NFL star is like being put on a national stage as the ultimate man: tough, decisive, invulnerable. Superman isn't supposed to get depressed, so depression gets viewed as a source of shame, like failing at manhood."
Terry Bradshaw, one of only two quarterbacks to win four Superbowls and a man renowned during his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers for his toughness, concurs: "That's how it is in football. We're supposed to be big tough guys. You have depression? Shoot, that's not depression, that's weakness. We'll talk about cancer and every other disease, including alcohol and drug abuse, but people do not want to talk about depression. There's something about depression that seems to say 'I'm a tremendous failure' or 'I'm the biggest wuss there is'."
Bradshaw has come through to the extent that he's now a highly visible spokesman about mental health problems, and for a leading anti-depressant. But what about those who didn't make it? Because in the words of the great psychologist Victor Frankl, "suicide is depression's
sequel". In 1986, Alexis Arguello, one of the greatest boxers of all-time, was telling an interviewer, "I wish I had the guts to commit suicide" and about his feelings that he was "lonely in a world full of wrong things". Twenty three, presumably very tough, years later, the Nicaraguan shot himself dead. That November Robert Enke, who would have been Germany's first-choice goalkeeper in the World Cup finals of the following summer, threw himself in front of a train.
It's not a new phenomenon. Perhaps the greatest jockey of them all, Fred Archer, shot himself back in 1886. In 1957, Hughie Gallacher, one of Scotland's finest ever footballers, stepped in front of a train. Former world light heavyweight champion Freddie Mills shot himself in 1965, former world middleweight champion Randolph Turpin, who'd once beaten Sugar Ray Robinson, shot himself a year later. In 1982, Dave Clement, a linchpin of the great QPR team of the '70s, poisoned himself with weedkiller at the age of 34.
And it's something which has also touched Irish sport. It's still genuinely shocking to think that Darren Sutherland, the happy-go-lucky Irish hero of the 2008 Olympics who seemed to have a glittering professional career in front of him, felt driven to take his own life in London a year later.
Sutherland's tragic death focused attention on the problems of sportsmen with depression. But it was also another wake-up call for a country where the suicide rate among young men is frightening. A few weeks back, I was taking part in a panel discussion at a book festival in Ennis when a local teacher made a heartfelt plea which has stuck with me since. There was, she said, an epidemic of suicide in the vicinity of the school where she taught and the teachers were at their wit's end trying to console the kids who were profoundly affected by it. The mental health charity Aware reckons there are 300,000 people with depression in Ireland and over 500 suicides a year because of it. That is an awful lot of suffering.
Yet, given that young men are particularly prone to depression and suicide, sports stars can play an important role in increasing awareness of the disease. Look at the example of John Kirwan, the great All Black wing of the 1980s and '90s. Kirwan, an impressive physical specimen and a ruthless competitor, would have been nobody's idea of a depressive. But it hit him to the extent that he spent days on end in bed and worried about his sanity to the point of wondering if he might murder someone. "The biggest fear for me," he recalled, "was that I was never going to be well again. I was never going to be the John Kirwan that went into this."
But Kirwan didn't just recover, he appeared in advertisements on New Zealand television talking about his depression and became the public face of the disease in his home country. He also set up a website to help people with the illness. At a test match, Kirwan was approached by a fellow spectator who told him, "Without you I'd be dead." His message is simple, "Rich, poor, skinny, fat, famous or not famous, it's an illness. If you had any other illness, you'd go straight to the doctor and get help." Terry Bradshaw purveys the same message, "go see your doctor. Go talk to a psychiatrist. And when you get the help you need, you're going to wonder why you didn't do it a long time ago."
That may seem like simple advice but the fact is that there is still a stigma about admitting to any form of mental illness. Perhaps the nastiest article I've ever read in an Irish newspaper was one which attacked Kenneth Egan when he was finding his new-found fame difficult to deal with and had dropped off the Irish boxing team and taken time out in America.
That article berated Egan as a weakling who should have been more macho because he was a boxer. The awful thing is that I know if Darren Sutherland had reached out for help in his hour of need he'd probably have had similar sneers directed towards him.
But it's the Kenneth Egan way, of talking about your problems and not bottling them up, which is the way to get through the tough times.
Because the great thing about what Kirwan, Bradshaw and Trescothick and the likes of Ronnie O'Sullivan, Frank Bruno and Neil Lennon, who've also talked about their depression, did is to show that there is nothing shameful about having the disease. Frank Bruno isn't a wimp and John Kirwan isn't
a loser. The strongest of men can be laid low by this disease. Yet there are still too many men out there trying to fight the disease on their own. The pubs are full of guys trying to self-medicate with alcohol, which given that booze is a depressant is the very definition of a vicious circle.
There is a stigma about mental illness. But it's not the fault of the sufferer. The healthiest way to look at it is perhaps to realise that anyone who mocks someone else's ill health is a bollocks. And who cares what a bollocks says to you or about you?
Top sportsmen may be at increased risk of depression because success at the highest level can require a monomaniacal devotion which means that injury, a loss of form or defeat can seem like the end of the world. Sometimes I cringe when I hear young lads say that they've 'put their life on hold' for their game. Because you should never put your life on hold. You can't anyway, it's got to be lived no matter what you're striving for.
One of the best things which could happen for the young men struggling to keep their heads above water would be for a major sports star to emulate Donal óg Cusack and come out. Even one player talking about battling depression would have a huge effect in terms of public attitudes, just as Donal óg did. And you can be sure that there's a lot more than one player out there.
For the moment, the sportsman suffering from depression will have to cope with the fact that in the words of Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, "In sports when it's a broken bone, teams will do everything in their power to make sure it's okay. When it's a broken soul, it's like a weakness." Williams was once the most promising prospect in American football. But he suffered very badly with his nerves. The fly-on-the-wall documentary about his life, Run Ricky Run, shows a man in such a stage of mental anguish it's almost impossible to watch. Yet media pundits at the time queued up to berate him for not manning up and getting back on the pitch. In the end he had the courage to step away from the game and return years later, older, happier and still pretty good. He bent so he wouldn't break.
Because, while there are those who don't make it through, there are also those who do. Men like America's Jimmy Shea, who battled depression before winning the gold medal in the Skeleton event at the 2002 Winter Olympics. "Winning a gold medal," said Shea, "is the ultimate. But I wouldn't trade happiness for it. Not in a million years." It's a motto to live by.
And yeah I've had it. It's pure hell, but you can survive it and get out the other side. You can win.
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.
Sunday Indo Sport