Depression can affect anyone. Chances are someone in your immediate circle has experienced it.
But imagine how they’d feel if that most personal, private, trauma was on display for the world to see – and comment on?
Think of your biggest secret, your greatest shame – that one ghastly event or moment in your past that can still make you cringe inwardly when something reminds you of it.
Life must be like that, a little, for our sporting heroes, those elite athletes who dominate the codes we follow, thrilling spectators with their otherworldly abilities and exploits on the field, sometimes carrying the hopes of millions of fans, but also attracting the miscroscopic, obsessive attention of the “popular” media, ever vigilant in the hope of catching someone at their lowest ebb.
It has to be a tough gig. But we’ve only really discovered in the past few years, as it has become “safe” to talk about mental health, just how tough that gig can be for young, volatile people still learning to deal with the highs and lows of competition, expectations and achievements. They are role models and heroes before they’ve had time to understand and know themselves.
This year we’ve seen high-flying rugby league star Kieran Foran plummet to earth, needing time out of the game to heal his psyche. Problem built on problem – and he still not out of the woods.
Last year it was Australian Rules’ Buddy Franklin who needed to step back and regroup before coming back a better and stronger player.
Depression affects all people, not just sport stars. It is believed that at any one time, more than three million people live with depression or anxiety. Statistics show 45 per cent of the Australian population will experience some kind of mental health condition in their lifetime.
Mental health is clearly an issue but suddenly, thankfully, it’s become okay to talk about it – a sign maybe of new generations more in touch with their feelings or happier just to let it all hang out.
Over the past few years sports stars from all levels have admitted suffering from depression and urged others to open up and get help. Ian Thorpe, Serena Williams, Andrew Fifita, Andrew Flintoff, Darius Boyd, Lauryn Eagle and Johnny Wilkinson have all spoken up, have got help and fought their way back to the winners’ podium. Not all have been so lucky: the secrecy that used to cloak depression likely contributed to tragedies such as the death of soccer star Robert Enke, a goalkeeper for Germany, now recognised as having secretly suffered from crippling depression for six years.
From injury to helping others
Dan Hunt, a former St George Illawarra Dragons NRL player turned mental health advocate told the Newsroom how depression nearly destroyed his career.
Hunt had to watch the Dragons win the Grand Final from the sidelines in 2010 after an ankle injury.
“I hit rock bottom then and I took myself to the Black Dog Institute and sought some professional clinical help and that’s when I got diagnosed with type 2 bipolar.”
With help he fought back to keep playing but a niggling knee injury eventually forced him to retire from the game in 2015.
Speaking to someone is the best thing you can do, Hunt says.
“It has changed me because when I was struggling I thought I was alone.
“I didn’t think anyone else was struggling, I didn’t want to talk about it. It’s the stigma thinking someone will judge you, because I thought it was a sign of weakness to talk about my issue where now I know it takes a stronger person to actually talk about it.”
And it has been quite a journey … Hunt’s bipolar condition explained his risk-taking behaviour and was aggravated by alcohol addiction, but he got through it and decided to give back some of what he had learned, to help others he knew must be suffering similar issues.
Since retirement he has created a program he named the Mental Health Movement. Hunt visits schools and community centres and sporting clubs, talking to people about mental health to remove the mystery and stigma from a condition too few people know about.
“Professional sport in particular rugby league is a roller-coaster in itself, the ups and downs, week-to-week training, winning and losing, playing good or playing bad, getting a contract or not getting a contract and obviously the publicity in the media.
“[There are] the fans and then scrutiny on social media and then you have to balance all that with your home life,” Dan told The Newsroom.
“You can share knowledge with younger people, It so important to start a conversation if someone is not feeling themselves and ask Are you ok? simple things like How are you? I’m here for you…
“Those things can really change or start the change.”
Very successful day for Warilla High School, Mental Health Movement and @NRL_DCommunity delivering our mental health presentations.
— Dan Hunt (@dan8hunt) May 30, 2016
Scott Duchatel, a 24-year-old from Manly on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is another young athlete who went through depression.
Scott played basketball and water polo in high school, going on to represent NSW in water polo until a car accident severely damaged an arm. By 22, still trying to recover and reach the top, he had entered a deep depression.
His salvation came in the form of a no-nonsense friend who saw how his anger was eating at his soul and affecting the way he played. On a bad day “I would most likely get fouled out of the game or receive a technical foul; I played with a lot of anger,” he told The Newsroom.
His friend from Canada helped him realise his anger was hurting those around him. With the insight that came from talking about the problem he turned his depression into motivation to be a better player and a better person.
Scott is now on his way to pursuing a career in professional basketball in Europe next year.
Take it from an expert – SPEAK to someone
David Barracosa, a senior performance psychologist, told The Newsroom the roots of depression could be a complex mix of factors and stressors over time.
“When people think about mental health in elite athletes and sportspeople it’s often after it has begun significantly affecting their life/playing career and when they may need to take time away from the game,” he said.
“This can often shock people and seem unexpected. However, depression doesn’t come out of the blue and is often a build up of a number of different stressors that the individual ultimately can no longer manage to carry.”
The most significant factor in helping elite athletes avoid having to take time out is getting support, Mr Barracosa said. The best cure for depression was to talk to someone about it and seek expert help.
“The symptoms of depression can affect people in a number of different ways but each one is considered quite debilitating. Common symptoms are things such as a lack of energy or motivation; decreased interest, enthusiasm and satisfaction in our experiences both individually and socially; having a negative and critical view of yourself as a person; and in extreme cases thoughts of self-harm.
“We experience pressure through the way we interpret situations and, more specifically, by taking things on board that we do not necessarily have control over, for example the expectations of others, recent team losses, or even media scrutiny.”
To overcome that, sports psychologists help their charges develop skills and strategies to cope with pressures rather than letting them build up under the surface.
“Mental toughness is so important because it teaches athletes how to filter these experiences and spend their time taking responsibility for the things that are within their control (their effort and intended actions in the present moment).
“Those with mental toughness are often able to have long careers and have developed a mindset which allows them to work through difficult times by managing their stressors.”
First step though – speak to someone and get help. It may sound blunt but it is not rocket science. You really are not alone. – Jesse Mullens
If you need help or would like to talk to someone please call Lifeline on 13 11 14
Photo of a silhouette athlete from Robert Forzoni’s website.