The life of a sporting superstar can certainly be an enviable one. Footballers, formula one drivers and cricket players alike are lucky enough to be paid obscene amounts of money in return for doing what they love, and yet depression in the world of sport seems to be more prominent than ever. This leads so many of us to ask “how can they be depressed when they have everything?”.
An important distinction to make is that depression is not synonymous with simply ‘being miserable’. Mental health is an extremely complex and confusing subject, even more so because we cannot see it directly and it does not need a cause. Speaking from experience, I was completely ignorant of the effect that depression or anxiety can have on our lives and the lives of our loved ones until I had to face it myself.
I was also completely ignorant of just how helpless we can become against a completely irrational way of thinking, and how it can turn you into someone almost unrecognisable. Depression is an illness that discriminates no less than the common cold, and as human beings, sporting idols are as susceptible to its symptoms as you or I.
So why is it that mental health problems are becoming more evident in sport? The industry, by its nature, provides those lucky enough to be part of it with extreme highs and lows in addition to constant nationwide scrutiny. On top of this, many sporting professionals feel a need to appear infallible to teammates and fans alike, and deem their own mental illness as a weakness. The scale of the social and media pressure means it is unsurprising that some are pushed to breaking point.
However, has this not always been the case in sport? Perhaps the increase in diagnosed cases means society’s fight against mental illness is slowly turning. The number of people suffering may not be rising, but instead we are finally learning to talk about depression objectively and honestly instead of hiding it. If this is the case, surely we can take heart from the number of household names brave enough to show struggles with mental health for what they are – completely normal.
We often hear about the fall of sporting idols. We hear about what a pity it is that the youth of today look to the likes of divisive stars such as Wayne Rooney and Tiger Woods for an acceptable example of how to act. Whether sportsmen and women act correctly or not, there will always be thousands or more replicating their actions. Surely this opens up an opportunity? Mental health problems are best dealt with by talking about them, by facing up to them and recognising they are nothing to be ashamed of.
Therefore it isn’t the moody footballers or promiscuous golfers who we should be looking to for inspiration. We should be looking to the likes of Kelly Holmes and Jonathan Trott, figures who have battled with depression and still reached the pinnacle of their profession.
The infectiousness of the actions of sportspeople has often been deemed a curse, maligned by parents who see their children biting chunks out of each other on the football pitch in a Luis Suarez-esque fit of rage. So why not idolise those who truly merit it?
Those brave enough to come out and speak of their battle with mental illness have the capacity to change the behaviour of a generation, and in doing so prove that depression and anxiety cannot stop anyone from being a success. Surely if we can manage this then we can make progress in changing attitudes towards mental illness and eliminate any stigma we associate with it.
Matt Dean, Mind Your Head Society Treasurer
If you’re feeling stressed or affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can find out more information, or book an appointment, with the University’s Wellbeing centre here. You can also talk to Voice, who offer a confidential service run by students, for students, here.
You can also like Mind Your Head Society on Facebook to keep up with their Mental Health Awareness Week and National Eating Disorders Awareness Week events.bookmark me