Education the key to dealing with depression
Depression, on average, affects one in 10 people and chronic depression one in 20. The illness is no respecter of social class, talent, success or physical fitness. It frequently affects perfectionists who might struggle to meet self-imposed, unrealistically high standards. And those with fragile egos that demand the fuel of public approval.
So it should come as no surprise that top sportsmen are numbered among its sufferers. Yet it still does. And it’s a medical condition that’s as “real” and debilitating – and can take as long to get over – as a ruptured cruciate ligament.
Whether caused by emotional trauma or a spontaneously occurring chemical imbalance in the brain, depression – like any physical injury – becomes a significant problem when symptoms are not recognised and treated. In my experience, though, footballers are – for a host of reasons – pretty good at denial and cover-up. And bad at seeking help.
Which serves only to drive embryonic depression underground, where it can fester and develop. Admitting you have a mental health problem might, today, carry less of a stigma than it did in the past. But that stigma hasn’t been eradicated. It’s still alive and kicking, especially among those of us who prefer our idols without feet of clay. Those of us who are simply jealous … “Young men, in the prime of their lives, getting paid fortunes for ‘work’ that’s actually sport. Depressed? You’re having a laugh!”
Or footballing peers, perhaps even team-mates, who’d scorn such an admission as a sign of weakness and try to gain a competitive advantage. It’s still a pretty macho and emotionally immature environment, after all. And those of us, particularly in the media, who insist that such sports stars must also be something for which most are manifestly not qualified – the role model.
Top sportsmen, particularly footballers, can quickly become “celebrities”. Some will blatantly have used their footballing talent as a means of gaining fame and celebrity. So the last thing they would want is for “bad publicity” to destroy or taint that celebrity status – their passport to adulation, power and riches.
Other sportsmen not as concerned with celebrity still don’t want to risk losing a comfortable lifestyle. A few will have greedy agents, advisors and “hangers-on” who, even if they do recognise signs of depression, will dissuade their “cash cow” from going public – yes, it’s true. And some – on the “ostrich” principle – will simply be scared of what they feel, soldier on and pray that the blues they experience will somehow just evaporate.
These are some of the reasons why depression in football remains a significant problem and tragedies inevitably occur. In a world so deeply infected with machismo and celebrity, it’s hard to admit that you might, even temporarily, have gone “soft”.
Much good work is being done but enlightenment is a slow process. We must make it easier for our sporting heroes to seek help when they need to. We must educate everyone involved in the game to look out for, and identify, tell-tale signs of psychological stress in their peers. And because celebrity is such a major factor today, high-profile interventions are vital to speeding that enlightenment along.
Andrew Flintoff’s recent sensitive and thought-provoking BBC documentary was a superb example of this. And other notables, like Stan Collymore, have made fantastic contributions by speaking out. Footballers are not superhuman. They possess, in addition to spectacular talents, many of the same frailties as us mere mortals. If they get sick, we must ensure – even if only for the pleasure they give us as spectators – that they can access the treatment any human being deserves.