Monday 19 March 2018

Tackling the silence at root of depression

David Kelly

David Kelly

Sometimes there is no why. Sometimes it just is.

The other day on BBC Five Live the sports jock found himself desperately scrambling for reason. That is not a criticism. That is his job.

Raymond Verheijen, Gary Speed's assistant coach at Wales, was being asked did he have any suspicions as to what may have altered in the state of mind of his former colleague between a banter-filled TV appearance and a bleak, desperate death less than 24 hours later.

"If you were a psychologist, or a mind-reader," he was probed, "was there anything you could see in his body language or appearance to suggest ... "

But asking why Speed died is not as simple as to why are Chelsea leaking so many goals. Looking for reason at the end of a solitary rope in a desolated garage is not as easy as analysing Manchester United's midfield frailties.

As a private tragedy suddenly morphed into public property, all of us were guilty of grand assumptions.

Those on the periphery demanding answers where there were none readily available. And those more intimately acquainted with Speed who rejected any intimation that the dead man may have been depressed.

How could they know one way or another? Did he leave a note? Were they so eager to be dismissive of the notion that a depressed individual could have been living -- and dying -- under their very noses?

As eager, perhaps, as the rest of us to conveniently attach the label of "depression" to his death, in order for us to more easily digest our inchoate responses to something so utterly inexplicable.

Ignorance running rampant in the absence of real knowledge. Labels being applied with the rapidity of a supermarket gun.

Judgments ran amok. From the selfish, "I'd give anything to earn a third of his wages," to the judgmental, "what about his wife and kids?" and to the sanctimonious, "let's make him manager of the year."

But if one in three of you scanning this page will be or have been affected in some way by depression, perhaps we should embrace the opportunity presented by this terrible vacuum.

If we are to be guilty of publicising a private tragedy, at least let it be with an aspirational goal in mind.

Particularly in this country, where talking about mental health continues to be frowned upon, not only in society, but specifically within the macho, male-dominated sporting landscape.

Here, the stigma remains as stubbornly resolute as ever.

Last week, renowned sports psychologist Caroline Currid and former Ireland international Alan Quinlan, whose struggles with depression have been vividly chronicled, spoke at a campaign in Wexford aimed at tackling depression called "Lean on Me."

Afterwards, it was noticeable that of the predominantly male audience of around 80 people, those who came forward privately to speak, did so to Quinlan and not the attendant specialists.

The often glib attitude that one should just "pick up the phone," as if merely dialling a pizza, fails comprehensively to understand the often bleak situation of those suffering from mental health problems.

"We're so good in this country at sweeping things under the carpet," admits Currid, who has encountered numerous instances of young, depressed males in the GAA world, although not within her best-known role as sports psychologist to the Dublin footballers and Tipperary hurlers.

"People don't understand. I'd deal with young males with depression and they don't know how to communicate their feelings. They'd say to me: 'What are feelings and emotions?'

"It's not that they don't want to communicate or emote their feelings. It's that they don't know how to. They haven't got those tools. And then there's the fact that there's a huge stigma attached, there's the labelling.

"So, while we're trying to say it should be a huge strength to be able to communicate one's feelings, it's often perceived as a weakness because that labelling affects employment, social status."

Richie Sadlier, as he explained so eloquently on Newstalk last Monday morning, experienced this first hand over a decade ago when he suffered the illness while a professional footballer at Millwall.

"I suffered at the time and I never once dreamt of telling anyone in the football club, because I didn't feel it would have been treated sympathetically at the time," said Sadlier, publicly revealing his private torment for the first time.

"I didn't even tell my friends because I was sure the attitude would have been a dismissive 'you've got a job everyone dreams of, be thankful for what you've got.' And I had the job I always wanted, I had a car and a house.

"I sought professional help myself. I thought the club would have felt it was a weakness. But a professional football club is not the only area of society that hasn't got the ability to discuss openly the issue of mental health. There's a general reluctance for people to talk about this."

Quinlan was possessed of the same attitude. Within Munster rugby, like most other dressing-rooms, the credo starkly outlines that one should, "leave your feelings at the door."

For someone jousting with their mental health, this is tantamount to denying an asthmatic their inhaler, a diabetic their insulin. Quinlan, so often characterised as the strong man on the field, was masking a debilitating weakness off it.

"There are so many pressures," he says now. "The pressure to perform every week, the pressure to remain physically fit, the pressure from supporters, from coaches." Coping with expectations can become a smothering experience.

Athletes are taught to be so physically strong that any admission of weakness is seemingly forbidden. But, unlike a hamstring strain or a broken limb, so easily diagnosed and predictably repaired, illness of the mind is not so easily patched up. As John Kirwan once commented: "All Blacks aren't supposed to cry."

Seeking help is perceived as a person's greatest weakness, when it should instead be recognised as an individual's greatest strength. Taking that first step remains the difficult part. So easy to seek medical attention for an ankle sprain, not so for a mental strain.

Often, it happens when the athlete takes the last step down from the podium, or after the final whistle blows on their career. How do you fill that competitive gap, replace all that physical activity?


But during a competitor's life at the uncertain pinnacle of sport, the strains are just as evident. Coping with the vast gulfs between winning and losing, the wide vacillation in personal performance.

Donncha O'Callaghan illustrates vividly in his new book the athlete's view of winning and losing. "It's not really about winning, but avoiding that feeling that we had in that dressing-room," he writes after Ireland's World Cup defeat to Wales.

Such emotional mood swings, if not easily moderated, can trigger mental health problems. And sport's necessary division of winners and losers, triumph and despair, are pitiless harbingers of self-doubt, incipient assassins of one's self-worth, whether one is an amateur club hurler or a highly salaried rugby or soccer professional.

For depression is an indiscriminate illness. It recognises no creed, race or class.

That people like Quinlan and Sadlier have been able to publicise their struggles remains an inspiration, although one shouldn't necessarily point to the example of Speed's death as being "preventable."

"It's not preventable if someone isn't able to tell anyone about it," says a former sufferer. "If there's something wrong, something needs to be said. Too often, nothing is said and the problem remains untreated. People say just give more funding but ask yourself how you feel about depression as an issue? That's more important than any money."

Hence Ireland's glacial struggle to address the issue. "We're good at talking in this country, but we're not always as good as listening," adds Currid.

Only each individual knows what's going on in their own heads. It's not what we see on the surface that counts, but what lies hidden beneath.

So, what did Raymond Verheijen say when asked how Gary Speed looked to him when he appeared on Football Focus?

"He was just like Gary Speed."

Just like you and me. Perhaps just waiting for someone to talk to. And someone to listen.

Irish Independent

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