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Why can't sport come to terms with depression?

Mental health is still a taboo issue in sport, but the problem isn’t so much the athletes themselves as our own misplaced expectations of them, writes Conor Nagle.

Shay Given and his Aston Villa teammates during the minute's silence for Gary Speed on Sunday. The inquest into his death opens today.
Shay Given and his Aston Villa teammates during the minute's silence for Gary Speed on Sunday. The inquest into his death opens today.
Image: John Walton/EMPICS Sport

AS NEWS OF Gary Speed’s suicide broke this weekend, and news agencies set about the slightly grotesque business of canvassing bereaved colleagues and friends of the Premier League veteran for “tributes” and responses, one couldn’t but be struck by the frequency with which the relevant interviewees were drawn down the logical cul-de-sac of considering the event itself in terms of the victim’s manifold achievements.

At 42 years of age, Speed was enjoying spectacular success as the manager of the Welsh international football team, he could look back with pride on one of the longest careers in Premier League history and had, over the course of the his 20 years as a professional footballer, earned 85 caps for his national team.

Not only that, but as a husband and father of two young children, he could boast of a settled home life far removed, it seemed, from the clichés of top-flight football.

But to insist on setting his suicide against a limited selection of material factors doesn’t just do the memory Gary Speed a disservice, it hinders both our broader understanding and treatment of the illness to which he likely succumbed.

No one knows what was going on in Gary Speed’s head.

But the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 121 million are currently people living with depression worldwide. At some point in the next decade, the illness will rise to second place on the index that calculates what’s known as “the global burden of disease”.

To put the scale of the pandemic in more accessible terms, Irish charity Aware believe as many as one-in-four residents of the Republic are currently affected by it, be that either directly or through contact with a spouse, family member or close friend.

The great tragedy of depression as an illness, however, isn’t its prevalence, exactly, but the frequency with which sufferers fail to receive adequate treatment. It’s a point Aware’s Kevin Smith is keen to emphasise:

“Like any other illness, the earlier it’s dealt with, the better chance there is of a quick recovery. Most people who seek help will recover. It’s one of the most prominent mental health illnesses, but it’s also the most treatable.”

Ad campaigns and improved access to treatment have begun the slow business of overturning antiquated associations of mental illness with weakness, but the stigma attached to depression is still particularly strong, and nowhere is that more clearly evident than the results-driven, cliché-ridden world of professional sport.

Modern life is often assailed for its knack of reducing living, breathing human beings to mere instruments in a mechanical process, but it’s in sport that this narrowing of human experience really achieves its potential.

A relentless, career-long pursuit of physical excellence, the athletic conveyor belt doesn’t just marginalise mental health, it traps would-be sufferers in a web of outdated expectations and unreasonable personal demands.

Sport takes promising youngsters on a brief and turbulent journey before depositing them, untrained and unprepared, at the gates of middle age (what Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, describes as the “cold bath” waiting at the end of a career in the limelight).

Insecurity

For every Gary Speed or Robert Enke (the German international goalkeeper who committed suicide in 2009 after suffering for years with chronic depression), there are literally dozens of athletes struggling silently to come to terms with professional insecurity, low mood or the listlessness and confusion attendant upon sudden retirement.

Many organisations, like our own Gaelic Players Association (GPA) and the PFA, have put protocols and procedures in place to ensure members can avail of advice and counselling, but as Taylor tells TheScore, they’re competing with an entrenched culture of denial:

“[Our courses have] been received very well, actually, and they’re welcome because it’s an issue that isn’t always met with understanding. I can recall when Stan Collymore was going through some difficulties at Aston Villa. They were threatening to sack him. I remember trying to explain to them that he was suffering from depression…

“The difficulty with it is that it’s an issue where you need the person himself to stand up, to come forward and understand that it can be dealt with in confidence.”

As seductive as the prospect of consigning blame for sport’s ideological blind-spots to the dressing room is, it remains an uncomfortable fact that the behaviour of supporters has, in the past, proven every bit as significant as that of colleagues in discouraging athletes from seeking help.

Viewed through the slightly warped lens of sporting fanaticism, mental illness tends to be shorn of its human quality and become something trivial, fodder for either an abusive chant or a snide bon mot (a fact to which a handful of prominent athletes, including the aforementioned Collymore, Sol Campbell, Andy Goram and cricketer Marcus Trescothick can well attest).

While smug marketing campaigns would have you believe that the prejudicial treatment of mental illness, like littering, was the fault of a few bad apples, Kevin Smith believes that, in reality, the evolution of social mores in recent years has been nearly imperceptible:

“In my opinion, it’s hardly changed at all. The stigma surrounding depression is enormous. People still see it as a weakness; they still feel it’s something they can deal with”

In many ways, then, the experience of the professional athlete exaggerates the terms of our already fraught relationship with ideas of well-being and mental health.

Viewed in that light, the death of Gary Speed doesn’t seem to stand as an isolated, personal tragedy, but a stark reflection of the chronically inadequate values on which society at large and professional sport in particular are founded.

Likewise, to insist that suicide is either inexplicable or somehow capable of being reduced to a coherent narrative– a chain of events– is, in many ways, to deny depression its legitimacy as an illness.

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