Tackling The Stigma

Eoghan Dalton proves that there is a high price to pay for success, fortune and fame for many of sports finest athletes.

Mental health has undoubtedly been at the forefront of Irish news for the past while. Galway hurler Niall Donohue’s death, and Conor Cusack’s (the brother of Cork Legend, Dónal Óg Cusack) admission of his own illness have thrust it into the forefront of people’s minds, while the issue has also made its way into the British papers thanks to cricketer Jonathan Trott; the England batsman had to drop out of the international squad, citing a “long-standing stress related illness”. It’s only right that it is in peoples’ minds too, even if the circumstances are nearly always saddening.

Until the turn of the century, there was little talk of the depression in the sporting arena. Encouraging signs of a new openness have appeared these past few years with documentaries and reports on the struggles players must go through have helped, of course. Former footballer and English Professional Association chairman, Clarke Carlisle, helmed the BBC doc Football’s Suicide Secret last summer. That was especially enlightening, as we saw one time high profile footballers discuss the troubles they’ve found themselves facing. In former Aston Villa player Lee Hendrie’s case, the global recession made a mockery of his investments and left him financially devastated. After being declared bankrupt, he twice tried to take his own life.

This is far from uncommon with sportspeople: Carlisle himself found the pressures exerted by his profession so overwhelming he considered closing the door on his life too. After he ruptured his ligaments early in his career, he tried to overdose since he felt there was no other option besides football.

This is a problem which affects professional sports in particular. Few players have actual contingency plans in case they are suddenly injured or even don’t make it past the academy stage. Carlisle has documented this as well with various interviews of youngsters aspiring to graduate past the youth teams. The majority of schoolboys don’t become professionals, which is understandable; it’s the type of job where the 99 percent tend to be left behind. What isn’t so acceptable is that clubs don’t help educate the players in areas outside of football. If they aren’t good enough for the club, they will either have to find another club or their years spent in football will be a waste. The German FA is now trying to counteract this by ensuring that youth players receive a proper education alongside their sporting one.

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Few players have actual contingency plans in case they are suddenly injured or even don’t make it past the academy stage.

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A similar issue is prevalent in the NFL in America too. As shown in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Broke, many players find themselves in financial ruin once their playing career is over. Some are pressured into providing for family and friends with some of them supporting up to a dozen families at any one time. It’s a shame that they forgot they cannot play forever, or that their careers tend to last 10 to 15 years at best. This is another example of the club using a player until their usefulness on the pitch is no more. After that, they are less than surplus to requirements

For those players who choose to continue with their chosen sport, be they amateur or professional, there are still numerous obstacles to their mental health. Kerry Mummery has studied depression in sportspeople and lectures in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Central Queensland University. He believes that one of the problems is down to psychologists focusing more on matters such as anxiety rather than depression. This is problematic because “of the physical and psychological demands placed on them by the sporting environment”. The hours of training is one such factor which can harm a player, especially as the intensity of training sessions has increased over recent years. Unfortunately, as Mummery states, “little is actually known about the relation between training volume and psychological disturbance…Results of research suggest that the association is U-shaped, with too much exercise…related to depressive symptoms.”

A study last year on youth players by the University of Leeds confirmed as much; after examining 167 players, the researchers stated that most of the young men are at risk of burning out before they graduate. Players striving for perfection were found to be at risk, especially; Dr. Andrew Hill, who led the study, observed that perfectionists are “stuck in a self-defeating cycle”. Interestingly, he also believes that “there is nothing particularly positive about sport. It is about the environment that is created.” If there is not a content or successful atmosphere in a team (although surely the two are linked) then that is one area where problems can arise.

Essentially, sport must be a positive experience for players and especially when they’re young. Instead, their childhood dreams can be damaged by the demands that coaches place on them as the player may eventually become disaffected. If this isn’t combated, then the opportunity to provide a stable, healthy upbringing to players is lost.

Credit must go to Cusack, as his detailed writings on his depression may prove to be a turning point in Irish sport’s struggle with mental illness. However, this is only the start; who knows how many men and women are out there who are still afraid to reveal their problems? There still isn’t a great understanding by regular people on how exactly a person is affected by mental illness.

It should be clear by now that fame, fortune and even success are no great shields against depression. There’s a long road to travel on the matter, but people talking about their problems must become the norm first.

If you find yourself struggling, then don’t be afraid to talk. It’s a sign of strength, after all. Go to pleasetalk.ie /ucc/ for information on who to talk to, depending on what is affecting you.