Passing it off

Professional sport provides environment, platform for mental illness

Jerrad Peters

Sport and mental wellness have always had a complicated relationship.

It’s no secret that physical activity, above and beyond the obvious benefits to the body, is beneficial to the mind as well - just ask anyone addicted to endorphin stimulation.

The flipside is that the opposite can be true as well, not so much because of the actual participation in sport as the environment that comes along with it.

The culture of pressure and expectation, never mind an intimidating list of dos and don’ts, shoulds and should nots, can act as an incubator where pre-existing mental illness thrives.

There are endless examples of athletes, and I’m sure coaches and managers as well, who have seen their mental health deteriorate during careers in professional sport.

Many, tragically, have lost their lives as a result of their condition, because as we all know - or should know - mental illness, specifically depression, is a disease that can prove fatal.

Thus, it is no different than terminal cancer or serious heart disease, although the route to treatment is considerably more convoluted, even taboo.

This is especially true in the sporting world, where the macho culture still rules, despite social movement in the opposite direction.

Now, it’s important to point out that professional athletes, like high-profile actors and musicians, are no more or less prone to mental illness than anyone else.

Depression is a condition that knows no bounds - treacherous and indiscriminate. But what makes the athlete’s circumstances unique is the amount of stigma that accompanies the disease. It’s significantly more pronounced than in the world at large, which is why victims so often choose suicide over humiliation.

I first wrote about depression in sport in 2009 when Robert Enke, a soccer goalkeeper for German side Hannover 96, took his life after a long, extremely lonely battle with the disease.

Enke, 32 at the time, had been receiving treatment for his depression since 2003 and experienced some improvement until the death of his two-year-old daughter in 2006 signalled a steep decline in his condition.

He and his wife adopted another little girl in the spring of 2009, but instead of the joy a new child should bring, Enke lived with the constant fear that the authorities would learn of his condition and nullify the adoption.

I use the Enke example because in reading his story it’s easy to forget he was a professional footballer.

He was a father and a husband, and his experience with depression might have looked similar to any number of cases. Where it differed was in the inevitable exposure it would receive in the press - little of it positive or even compassionate.

In 2003, the same year Enke started his treatment, Bayern Munich midfielder Sebastian Diesler went public with his own depression struggle.

Reaction from his peers was as swift as it was appalling, with a former teammate from the German national team remarking, “You could say this is a fashionable illness.”

A Bundesliga club director took the despicability one step further, remarking, “Nobody was suffering from such illnesses when I was a player.”

As Enke obviously knew all too well, these are the sorts of ignorant, hurtful comments that only harden the resolve of depression sufferers to protect their secret, to keep their struggles to themselves when reaching out for help is really their only lifeline.

And the manner in which certain elements of the press so eagerly devour the wounded only serves to ensure they’ll never seek the help and privacy they need, lest they be found out.

It’s the fear of their battle with depression being played out in the media that forces so many athletes underground, that differentiates their experience of mental illness from that of someone in a more anonymous walk of life.

In this sense, sport serves as something of a platform for depression. It magnifies the symptoms, the sufferers, the results and the reactions.

Unfortunately, it’s a platform too often used to compound the misery of both the athletes and the people following their story who also battle mental illness - to use negative language such as “suicide” and belittle tragic situations by revealing the physical cause of death (a rope, a gun, a blade) when it’s the disease itself that does the killing.

But it needn’t.

Like any platform this one can also be used for the public good. It can shine a light on a serious condition we can all do our part to make more comfortable for those going through it.

And we can do that by treating people well, with compassion, and creating a society where understanding and empathy are embraced, where it’s as normal to ask mental health questions as it is to get a prostate exam.

Jerrad Peters is an independent sports journalist based in Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 66, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 1, 2012)

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