Watching the recent IAAF World Championships in London you can’t help but be amazed at the physical and mental speed, power and endurance of the athletes taking part. They showcase human ability and performance at its very best. We were entertained, sitting on the edge of our couches willing athletes to beat each other by split seconds or just a few centimetres; celebrating with those that achieved their dreams and feeling desperate for those that just fell short.
The drama of sport can be intoxicating.
But, behind the glitz and glamour of it all there is a darker side which we may prefer to keep hidden because it takes a bit of the shine off the fantasy.
When we get behind the images of the athletes we see on TV what is left are just people like you and I, which means they are prone to the same difficulties and challenges as the rest of us. However, mental health issues seem to be the antithesis of high performance because elite athletes are supposed to be the epitome of mental toughness. The stigma that still exists in society at large regarding mental illness is therefore often magnified in the elite sports world.
Despite some progress, there is a still very much a culture of silence and denial in elite sports when it comes to these issues, and perceptions of mental illness as weakness make it very difficult for athletes to seek help and support when they are at their most vulnerable, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Suicides, attempted suicides or the suicidal ideation of prominent athletes such as boxer Mike Tyson, footballers Andreas Biermann and Frantisek Rajtoral, Rugby player Dan Vickerman, NFL star Junior Seau, former swimming world record holder Leisel Jones and former UFC world champion Ronda Rousey stand as testament to the difficulties elite athletes face when it comes to mental health issues and highlight the need to bring this issue to the forefront of the sporting world.
The list of Olympic athletes who have battled with mental health issues reads like a who’s who of great athletes. Sydney and Rio swimming gold medalist Anthony Ervin suffers from Tourettes Syndrome. Multiple swimming World Record holders and Olympic medalists Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps battled depression and alcohol abuse. Gold medal swimmer Amanda Beard and gymnast Shawn Johnson both battled with an eating disorder while competing. Athens track double gold medalist Dame Kelly Holms admitted to suicidal thoughts and self-harm while competing. World champion long jumper Luvo Manyonga has also been open about his problem with substance abuse.
Other sports don’t fare well either. Two of Australia’s greatest cricketers Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne developed gambling problems, and ex-New Zealand player Craig Spearman admitted to a full-blown addiction while still competing internationally. At one point the world best all-rounder England’s Freddie Flintoff suffered from depression and drinking problems. Boxing’s Oscar de la Hoya said of his struggle with depression ‘I could put all my opponents in one ring and battle them, but this monster is going to be the toughest of my life’. Former All Black rugby great Sir John Kerwin said ‘I don’t wish it (depression) an anyone. It was my worst nightmare’. Even WWE star and now actor Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson had to deal with the ‘big black dog at the door’ as Winston Churchill described it.
The list goes on and on.
The problem is that many athletes only open up and share their stories once they have retired. Almost all the athletes mentioned above revealed this ‘secret’ in biographies or interviews long after they had stopped competing. Thorpe admitted that he only felt he could talk about these issues after his retirement because of the ‘macho’ culture of Australian sport, and Phelps revealed his battle only after been caught for a DUI. We need to de-stigmatise mental health issues if we have any hope of helping athletes that suffer in silence both during their careers and in life after sport, and this will only happen if we encourage more athletes to share their challenges, especially while still competing. We then need to offer compassion and support rather than victimizing or stigmatizing them further. If we make jokes about ‘weakness’ or ‘being crazy’ or even comments such as ‘what do they have to be sad about’ when an athlete is brave enough share their difficulties, we are colluding with the system that exists and perpetuating the barriers athletes face in seeking the help they need.
Athletes, for better or worse, are role models to many, and by encouraging them to courageously speak out we will also be sending a message to ordinary boys and girls, men and women, that mental health issues are not shameful secrets, but very real human conditions that, with support and help, can be overcome.