The sad truth about sportsmen and depression
They’re young, women flock to them, kids want to be them and they have bank accounts the majority of us can only dream of.
Being an athlete for some, is aspirational as fronting Coldplay or starring in a Twilight movie, but over the years for a few of these local sports stars, sitting right alongside their expensive watches and foreign cars, lies a transparent side effect few talk about.
In today’s game, not all men are immune to moments of darkness and introspection. Depression is now as common as concussions and judicial hearings when it comes to the life of the modern footballer.
From rugby’s Jonny Wilkinson to rugby league’s Andrew Johns to the AFL’s Nathan Thompson, the biggest names have dealt with the downer in silence.
Yet for reasons unknown there doesn’t seem to be an open forum for discussion until after the player retires. Only away from the media spotlight and the daily pressures of playing professional sport do they feel comfortable to speak out.
Two weeks ago International Rugby Players’ Association boss Rob Nichol recently addressed the growing issue at a conference in Dublin.
“The game is doing so much around the physical health of the professional player, and we very much appreciate this. However it is our belief that the prevalence of depression and feelings of despair is significant amongst professional athletes, and that the mental health of the professional rugby player both during and after his playing career is an area we need to put more resource and focus into.”
Despite wonderful campaigns like R U OK day and tireless efforts from The Black Dog institute and Beyond Blue, sadly for most of the general public, depression is still not seen as a believable illness, and in the tough circles off league and union, an individual who is looked upon by most as to be “living the dream” often struggles in silence.
I for one, couldn’t imagine coming home from a disaster day at the office then watching it replayed all over the news, social media and again in the paper the next day with everyone having a say on what I did or didn’t do, or even worse, calling for my butt to be sacked.
Can we even fathom how that must feel for a 20 year old who is at risk of depression, or already suffering?
Now, I can understand the cries from the modest hard-working family attempting to survive off minimum wage screaming “what do they have to be bloody depressed about” at the next athlete who cites he battles with the blues.
However let us remember there was a time when these young men were merely kids running around the backyard with a footy until they were scouted out on a suburban field and brought into the world of fame, money and public opinion.
Where athletes are pushed and pulled in all directions, speaking out and saying you suffer from depression in such a male-dominated sport has at times, been viewed as sign of weakness; they fear it will be seen as an admission of failure.
And so they stay silent. When asked how they are they simply bang on a faux smile in an attempt to hide their angst.
With over 50 Super Rugby caps and close to 30 games in the green and gold Former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone fought his depression in silence, but not before going to hell and back before finding the courage to let the rugby community in on his secret.
“Anyone who met me would think I was completely normal, and I maintained that fictitious existence for years,” Rathbone said.
Existence, or for a better term continuous survival, is hardly “living the dream” now is it?
Steering away from other contributors like gambling and alcohol, depression is now a pivotal issue within the rugby ranks and the IRPA are in the midst of finding a way to decrease the growing number of sufferers before the next RWC.
“We challenged the conference to ensure that by the 2015 Rugby World Cup the game can put its hand up and say that more than any other sport we understand the issues associated with the mental health of the elite player and that we have the screening, education and support programs in place to help those who need it” concluded Nichol.
Apart from Nichol sounding like they’re in competition with other sporting bodies, talking about it is a promising start and I commend IRPA on making such a strong declaration.
Awareness is the beginning for all acceptance.
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