The stigma surrounding those with mental illness often seems to stem from a stereotype of weak minded and unsuccessful people who are unable to deal with the pressures that everyone else overcomes on a daily basis. Yet if that is the case then why is it that some of the world’s best known and iconic sports personalities – who by their very definition are a group of the most successful individuals on the planet – also suffer from anxiety, stress and depression on an almost a daily basis?
Last month the England and Wales Cricket Board confirmed that Jonathan Trott was to take an extended break from cricket after suffering a relapse of the ‘stress-related symptoms’ which forced him home from Australia. The batsman previously withdrew from England’s disastrous winter series after the first Test in Brisbane. Trott took a four-month break, and worked with the ECB medical team and a psychologist in an effort to rebuild his career. However, the England ace has now decided to take another break from the sport. Dr Nick Peirce, the ECB’s chief medical officer, said at the time:
“Jonathan has had a recurrence of the stress-related illness that ruled him out of all cricket this winter from late November onwards. Despite Jonathan wanting to play for Warwickshire from the start of the season, having spent time with him it is clear that he will benefit from a further period away from the game. He will continue with the comprehensive support programme the ECB has put in place to assist his rehabilitation.”
Obviously there remains a stigma surrounding mental illness, not just in sport but in everyday life, and Trott’s recent experiences are a perfect example of this. After Trott left the England tour of Australia in November citing a long-standing, stress-related condition, he then gave an interview explaining that he was burnt out rather than depressed. This lead the former England captain Michael Vaughan to say that he felt “conned” when he hears players “talking about burnout, I suspect it is an excuse.” Since Trott’s latest setback Vaughan has tweeted his sympathy (bully for him), but there remain plenty of others trolling social media and the rest of cyberspace wittering on that Trott doesn’t have the stones to play professional cricket.
Admitting weakness in the hard-nosed world of professional sport can damage or even end a career. Trott’s own battle with anxiety just shows that mental illness can affect anyone in any walk of life, yet he is not the first professional sporting star to suffer from the debilitating effects of mental illness. For example, Marcus Trescothick retired from international cricket to deal with his anxiety and depression. Royce White, the Houston Rockets’ top draft pick, a 6-foot-8 power forward, suffers from general anxiety, exaggerated worry, and tension, even though there is little or nothing to provoke it. While professional golfer, Charlie Beljan, said “I felt like I was going to die” having experienced a public panic attack during a televised PGA golf tournament. And there are a great many other celebrities who have also suffered silently with anxiety disorders.
It is perhaps easy to see how professional sportsmen and women, who are under intense public and media scrutiny while performing at the highest levels of their sport, would experience increased stress and anxiety – not to mention depression – when things don’t go their way on the pitch. It is unlikely that having several thousand fans foaming at the mouth and bellowing their discontent at every misplaced pass, stroke, or shot will help much either. If fellow professionals, like Vaughan, can criticise your desire and ability to play the game you love, imagine the vitriol coming from the stands.
In the sporting world, awareness for mental illness must come from all quarters; both current and former professionals, pundits and commentators, coaches and club owners, and – perhaps most importantly of all – the fans. While I would not wish anxiety on anyone, perhaps the high profile nature of Trott’s recent troubles can help to inform the public – or at the very least his fellow professionals – of the affects of mental illness. As a society we may be getting better at accepting and understanding mental health issues but there is still a long way to go.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.