Jonny Wilkinson is a rugby legend. Everyone agrees – those old enough to remember his heroics, those who can’t and even our great enemy from whom he ‘stole’ the 2003 World Cup. There is one person who doesn’t hold this view though – the man himself. Wilkinson refuses to accept he was ever good enough to now be recognised as one of the all-time greats of the game. Seriously, he doesn’t. Whilst this rather frank admission earlier this week may be grabbing the headlines, it was another blunt and honest statement that caught my attention – he suffered from depression for four years during his career. That is just unacceptable and highlights just how much work is still needed to be done to help professional athletes with mental health issues.
Firstly, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not saying sports should aim to stamp out depression completely; that would be absurd. It is an illness that, unfortunately, affects nearly 1-in-10 in the UK, has no specific cure and is bound to manifest itself in athletes under huge pressure to perform at their best all the time, for whom the security of their livelihood can hinge on one small mistake. In such environments depression is going to be more prevalent, yet athletes like Wilkinson are still able to suffer in silence. They should feel as though they have a system within their sport that they are not afraid to turn to and admit they are struggling. Does this exist currently? From the outside it seems not.
Wilkinson is one of an alarmingly growing number of former professional athletes who have come out and stated they suffered with depression during their careers – cricketers Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison, footballer Stan Collymoore and boxer Barry McGuigan are just a handful of high profile names who have done likewise. Would you have guessed it though from when they were playing? I certainly didn’t with both Flintoff and Harmison. Not only did these athletes manage to hide what was going on from others, many didn’t even recognise themselves that something was wrong. Criticism may be aimed at the sports and their structures for failing to recognise signs and symptoms but if the individuals themselves aren’t able to distinguish that they may be suffering from a mental health issue this points at a more systematic social flaw – no-one really understands depression.
I’ve already mentioned that this mental illness is now recognised as a common problem – you’re more likely to know someone who is depressed than you are someone who has had most types of cancer, Type 1 diabetes and so on. That’s a scary enough though itself; what makes it even worse is that most of us wouldn’t know how to spot depression. Even the experts have trouble in some cases. Some symptoms are common – a loss of appetite, strange sleeping patterns, becoming withdrawn – but these also crossover with many other conditions and the unique nature of each case makes it even harder to distinguish whether someone is depressed or not. Not only that, but individuals who are aware that they are not feeling ‘normal’ often hide their symptoms from everyone else. This may be because they themselves don’t recognise what is going on, or it could be that they feel as though they are not worthy of help. What is clear is that this illness is not straightforward and there needs to be a lot more education to help understand it and sport should be at the forefront of this.
Whilst being a professional athlete is an unique career in so many ways, the basic elements are the same as any other job – athletes are employed by someone who is responsible for paying them an agreed salary, providing them with the correct working conditions and ensuring their physical and mental wellbeing. That the likes of Wilkinson can suffer for so long without receiving any help can therefore be seen as the employer failing to keep their side of the contract. Of course it’s much more complicated than that but, as a place of work where constant exposure to extreme pressure will significantly increases the likelihood of depression developing, sport really needs to take the initiative and it can do in so many ways. Funding research into how to spot, recognise, prevent and help people overcome depression, using the ‘role model’ status of players to help make the public aware of the illness and creating links with mental health charities are just a few examples of just what sports can and should do.
This is not a problem that will be fixed quickly, but the sooner we go about finding the solution the better. No-one deserves to feel as though they are worthless, no matter who they are, what their reputation is and who they play for. All us fans want to see is our heroes in top form both on and off the pitch.