We Must Acknowledge Depression In Sports

Words cannot echo the surprise and shock at the news of Gary Speed’s death. It was only yesterday, the day before his death that I saw him on BBC television being praised for how well he’s done with the Welsh national team. My thoughts are of course with his family and friends.

It is surprising how little we know about the human mind and how it is afflicted by illnesses like depression. In fact one of the last resort cures, what is currently known as ECT or Electroconvulsive Therapy, would be considered a barbaric medieval torture if it wasn’t applied by Doctors. We understand hardly anything when it comes to the brain but we can all relate to how people may feel when they are down or low. It’s something we all go through albeit not to the degree that someone suffering from depression would.

Imagine then if you will, piled on with the pressures of life and living and relationships, when you have further weight on your shoulders. That being the weight of the hopes and dreams of sports fans. Over the past year, we have only just begun to recognise and realise the effect that depression has on athletes and sporting competitors. There is such a high charged emotional atmosphere and connection to winning and losing at the highest levels of sport that we can’t even begin to wonder what strain the mind must go through psychologically. How many people before this have taken their life and we haven’t understood why?

Since the year 2000, I’ve lost count at the amount of professional wrestlers who have taken their lives, albeit also connected with substance abuse. People like Chris Benoit and Chris Kanyon who took their own lives. This year alone, we have lost so many sportsmen. NHL player Derek Boogaard (28), US Olympic Skier Jeret Peterson (29), NY Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu (42) Austrian Olympic Judo competitor Claudia Heill (29) have all committed suicide this year brought on by depression. German goalkeeper Robert Enke took his life last year. Cricket stars Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy both suffer from depression and Boxing’s Frank Bruno was famously committed at one stage. Former Tennis champion Monica Seles also suffered from depression.

Whether we should acknowledge that depression in sports is a problem is obvious. Of course we should. Not enough is done to prepare people for the rigours of professional sport from a psychological point of view. You get trained how to act, how to say things and how to act professionally but do you get enough to cope with the pressure of rising fame and increased responsibilities. For some, the money is enough, for others they can naturally adjust to the drastic changes their life can go through.

But what we forget and overlook is that all these athletes, former athletes and sportsman are normal people. They are the same as you, me, your neighbour, that kid in primary school that you might have picked on because of his glasses. They have the same blood, feelings, emotions and problems. There are no fingers to be pointed, no accusations to claim and no scandal to be had. This is truly a shocking event that no one saw coming or had the slightest inkling that it could happen. But if there was more open support for sportsmen and people with depression or symptoms like that, if the regulators and professional bodies of sport did more to reach out and offer help, like the Samaritans and Mind charities do, then maybe, just maybe, we might save a few more lives that have given so much to our own.