In this Bulletin we look at the side of sport that usually doesn’t get reported, with sportsmen talking about their struggles with depression. We also highlight the Time to Change anti stigma campaign run by the leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness which encourages people to talk openly about mental health.
Sports stars and their fight with depression
On Wednesday Andrew Flintoff presented a programme, Hidden Side of Sport, on high profile sportsmen and their struggle with depression. It is estimated that 1 in 10 sportsmen has suffered some form of depression.
Flintoff himself admits to being so low at times that he didn’t want to get out of bed and in 2006 broke down in front of his father and apologised for letting him down:
“The 2006-07 Ashes series was my all-time low, both professionally and personally,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to face people. All I was thinking about when I was on the field was retiring. ‘I don’t think I was ever the same player again after that”
In the programme, Vinnie Jones, the hard man of football, admits to being so down that at one time he took a gun into the woods. Flintoff asked whether he intended to use it and Vinnie said:
“Yes, I just felt that I had let everybody down. You just feel so degraded in yourself. Why do these people have to keep putting up with me?”
Vinnie admits that it was impossible to talk about depression when he was playing:
“If you are bottom of the league, and one of the lads says, “I’ve got depression”, you would smack him round the side of the head, wouldn’t you? and say, “Pull yourself together”. ‘I think it was ignored. I think it would have been taken as weakness.’
In another interview boxer Ricky Hatton remembers his reaction to losing to Manny Pacquiao in 2009:
“The bell rang for the first round and I was overly reckless. He flattened me in two rounds. I came out of the ring and took my mouthguard off and I took my gloves off and I just put a towel over my head, and I remember just sobbing and sobbing.”
“I was devastated. I felt like hanging my head in shame. I just cried and cried and cried”
Unfortunately Hatton turned to drink in order to get through the pain:
“If you are suffering from depression and then you add drink to it, it’s like a runaway train. At the end of the night you are sat in the corner of the pub sobbing”.
Other sportsmen who talk about their problems with depression on the programme include cricketer Steve Harmison, football manager Neil Lennon and snooker world champion Graeme Dott.
In the last year both rugby star Jonny Wilkinson and Test cricketer Marcus Trescothick have talked about their own struggles with depression. In his autobiography Wilkinson writes about getting particularly upset in 2006 when his training doesn’t go according to plan.
“I don’t know what it is, but my frustration is so intense I start shouting at the walls, screaming obscenities. But I punish myself for my mistakes too. When my left foot lets me down, I stamp down hard on it. At one stage, I am so livid that, before I know it, I am sinking my teeth into my hand, trying to bite right through the skin between my thumb and index finger’
Finally Wilkinson talked to the Newcastle doctor Graeme Wilks about his emotions:
“Graeme said what I needed to hear: I had an illness.”
“He explained the illness was controlling everything else and that was far more important to deal with than the injury I had.”
“I was referred to a therapist and he explained the illness was the cause of my depression and my panic attacks — and that it had a cure — he assured me I wasn’t doomed.”
Cricketers seem particularly prone to depression and England Test cricketer Marcus Trescothick has talked about ‘the beast within’.
“It’s not me. It’s somebody totally different who takes over. I think it always just lies dormant until the anxiety rises up. It’s more an anxiety issue I have, rather than a depression. Of course they’re two sides of the same coin but I can flip into anxiety state very quickly – because my brain doesn’t cope well with anxiety. At the same time you learn how to do all the good things so you can say: ‘OK, let’s get back to normal.’
Trescothick stresses how the Professional Cricketers’ Association, and its Benevolent Fund, helped him:
“When I came back from India and needed counselling the direction from the Benevolent Fund was vital. They’ve got a counselling system and the day after I got back I was seeing a counsellor – funded by the PCA and Friends Life.”
Cricket has become more open about mental illness with cricketer Michael Yardy recently returning home from the World Cup in India due to depression.
About the Time to Change campaign
Time to Change is a programme run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness that tackles mental health stigma and discrimination. It works closely with people with mental health problems to build their confidence and leadership skills to address stigma. Time to Change is funded by the Department of Health and Comic Relief.
The programme is trying to break the taboo around mental health problems which can prevent people from getting help,making matters worse. As part of this, they will be working with organisations to encourage them to review the way they look after the mental health of their employees, and promote more open discussion about mental health in the workplace.
If you are interesting in getting your organisation involved with Time to Change, and taking the Time to Change pledge, you can find more information on their website at:
The programme Hidden Side of Sport can be watched on BBC iplayer at:
Articles on Hidden Side of Sport, Jonny Wilkinson and Marcus Trescothick