Saturday 17 March 2018

Richard Sadlier: Blame game no cure for mental illness

Media handwringing over Trott's condition missed the point

Jonathan Trott
Jonathan Trott
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

What is publicly known about cricketer Jonathan Trott is that he left the England squad in Australia last week due to a "long-standing stress-related illness."

How long he had been affected by the illness is unknown. What treatment he had been receiving, if any, is unknown. The nature of his symptoms is unknown and the specific diagnosis is unknown. Even if all that information was available, it would still be unclear as to what exactly caused it in the first place. Mental illnesses are complex.

When news of his departure went public, Australia batsman David Warner was heavily criticised for comments he had made the previous week. As people expressed messages of support and sympathy, others rounded on Warner for calling Trott "poor and weak" after his disappointing performance in Brisbane. Warner had previously acknowledged that his comments probably went a bit too far but to many people the damage was done.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan also spoke of his regret for criticising Trott's display in the way he did. Another former England captain, Michael Atherton, took the opportunity to remind sections of the Australian sports media that the people they write about are "human beings with families and feelings."

One report described the media response to Trott's departure as "restrained and sympathetic" – though the Daily Telegraph in Sydney didn't cover itself in glory with its 'Trott Does a Runner' headline – but it's wrong to focus on the criticism Trott received prior to his departure.

Vaughan was probably acting in a compassionate way by rowing back on what he said. Maybe Atherton meant well when he said what he did. But mental illnesses are not the result of media commentary or the criticisms of gobby opponents. There is no need for either Warner or Vaughan to feel remorse for what they said because both were doing their jobs. Illness is caused by the interaction of factors far more complicated than anything either of them said.

But, as with much of what is said around mental health, focusing on jeering crowds, tabloid headlines or pundits' criticisms is off the point entirely. It should be about creating a climate where people who suffer are encouraged to find the help that they need. Playing the blame game is a waste of everyone's time and only further distorts views around mental ill-health.

It's difficult to be certain about Trott in the absence of any detail but his situation won't be helped by a change in behaviour from the world's media. It may make some feel less guilty about the nature of their criticism but it won't reduce the incidence of mental ill-health in the future. As with men in general, speaking openly about mental health is a relatively recent experience in male professional sports, but expecting the media to change how it reports on poor performances and disappointing results should not be part of the conversation.

Nor is asking fans and players to adapt their behaviour towards opponents for fear they may be suffering in silence. Sledging won't stop between cricketers any more than jeering and mocking will stop among supporters. That's not what this should be about.

Trott's decision to return to England was widely reported as being brave. It may have been, but mainly it was just the right thing to do. He required treatment so he went to where he could receive it.

It's pretty straightforward stuff when you think about it, certainly easier to grasp than trying to identify who was at fault without knowing any other details. Media coverage of mental health has increased greatly in recent years but the content needs to be given a bit of a shake-up. We're still hearing how sportspeople are human beings who can have psychological challenges of their own. The point is still being made that sporting prowess is no defender against mental ill-health even though the contrary was discredited long ago. And in almost every discussion on mental health, depression is mentioned as if it's the only illness out there.

Changing the severity of tabloid headlines or the content of supporters' songs addresses nothing. And no good can come from asking pundits or columnists to go easier.

The causes are complex and the treatment options are varied but help is available from qualified people who know what they're doing. Repeating that message is still hugely important because a lot of well-meaning interventions are currently unhelpful. After all, it's no good talking about something if it's not the right thing to be talking about.

Sunday Independent

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