Bruno Is Bonkers, Collymore Is Crazy: Tackling Depression In Sport

You may or may not have an interest in cricket, but I highly recommend a BBC radio show from this week for a listen to anyone interested in learning more about a taboo subject in the sporting world: depression, something that afflicts men and women in every sport but is too rarely talked about in a mature fashion. Often, at least in the English press, a mistrustful and even ridiculing attitude has been shown to professional sportsmen – including soccer players such as Stan Collymore – suffering from mental distress as a result of clinical depression. That attitude, as the BBC show epitomised, may finally be changing.

Cricket seems to have had more high-profile cases of sportsmen whose clinical depression have come to light than most sports for a variety of reasons explored in the show, including the long overseas tours (sometimes lasting months) that take fathers away from their families, situations that can exacerbate situations for those ill with depression. Cricket is known to have the highest suicide rate in professional sport (with over 150 known cases throughout the twentieth century), with suicide rates running higher among cricket players than in the general population in all major cricket-playing countries. There’s even a book about it. Of course, not all of those cases would be due to clinical depression, but the BBC programme certainly threw light on a subject too often swept under the carpet in sporting culture.

‘Illness’ was perhaps the keyword of the commentary by cricketers including Marcos Trescothick and Matthew Hoggart, who emphasised that a sportsman can no more choose to become ill with depression than he can choose to become ill with laryngitis. Admitting the problem of a mental illness, as we all know, is far more challenging than discussing an obviously physical one in everyday society and even more so for those in the public eye presumed to be living the “good life” of comfortable sporting wealth.

Cricket might present unique challenges for international sportsmen suffering from depression, but many of the same issues are present in soccer, and we can presume – given around 15-20% of the general population will suffer from clinical depression at some time in their lives – that there are literally hundreds of professional players around the world privately struggling with a debilitating mental illness.

The most high-profile case in international soccer illustrates the tragedy that can result from depression only too clearly. In November 2009, as you may recall, German international goalkeeper Robert Enke took his own life. Enke’s situation was extreme – his daughter died in 2006 aged two due to a heart defect. After his death, Enke’s widow revealed that he had been treated for clinical depression for six years, and had been concerned about the consequences that might result from this becoming public knowledge.

Regardless of the specifics of Enke’s tragic case, there is no doubt that to be male and to be a professional sports star and to be depressed is not something many find comfortable to talk about. As Dave Zirin put it with regard to the Vince Young incident in 2008, “superman isn’t supposed to get depressed.”

Bonkers BrunoSportsmen have in the past been ridiculed for showing the “weakness” of having the misfortune to have a mental illness. British boxer Frank Bruno was subjected to the newspaper headline “Bonkers Bruno locked up” when he was hospitalised for his condition in 2003. In the Premier League, Stan Collymore found no sympathy from his own manager at Aston Villa when he admitted to his depressive illness in 1999, practically mocked in public by Villa boss John Gregory – an ignorant reaction that brought shockingly little opprobrium upon Gregory. In the Guardian, following Collymore’s admission to the Priory clinic for treatment, Paul Weaver mocked that “sometimes it is difficult to muster any sympathy” for well-paid players suffering from stress.

Little had apparently changed since the 1970s, when upcoming England star Kevin Beattie’s career was derailed by mental distress that resulted in him disappearing from England camp in 1974, his “weakness” pitilessly mocked across the British press. In the Daily Mail, Jeff Powell wrote that a “lot of hard-up kids were sick at the news of one of their own kind running away home instead of coming of age with an England cap.”

Bobby Brandon put it this way in an article following Enke’s death: “The difficulties of admitting to depression are magnified for professional athletes, in a world where bravado and hyper-masculinity can mean money, fame, endorsements and women, it becomes nearly impossible to admit to what many perceive as a weakness without realizing the courage it takes for a man to admit he has a problem.”

Sport itself is now being recognised as a potential pressure cooker. Enke’s death prompted this thoughtful commentary from Gabby Logan in November 2009:

Is the sportsman predisposed to mental illness or does the sport induce it? Sport-induced depression seems to develop through different triggers: the stress of continued peak performance, the despair in long periods of injury and the futility of life in retirement. The highs and lows of sport are so intense, focusing on such small detail to gain advantage and then enjoying victory for just a few snatched moments before the next goal is laid down.

It does seem – largely due to the death of Enke and the openness of prominent cricketers about their situations – that thankfully the ignorant perspective on mental illness in professional sport may be changing, at least in British sporting discourse. Listening to the two hour BBC show (nationally broadcast) mentioned above with numerous sportsmen openly and honestly discussing the pain of depression and the ways they found to cope with it surely makes it easier for the taboo to start to fade away.

In England, the Professional Footballers’ Association has produced a new guide book for its members for the 2011-12 season that looks at the unique stresses of being a professional sportsman and suggests ways to handle them. Let’s hope this sets an example for others to follow.

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