Antoinette Muller

Fighting the 'Black Dog'

2013-11-27 15:03
Sport24 columnist Antoinette Muller (File)
With Jonathan Trott  opting out of the Ashes and all cricket for the foreseeable future with a “stress-related illness”, there have been lots of questions asked over why it seems that England cricketers are more prone to mental health problems.

On the surface, it would seem that they are with Marcus Trescothick, Michael Yardy, Steve Harmison and  a number of others confessing to fighting the black dog in recent years. Although nobody knows if Trott has “depression” in the clinical sense of the word, he is being forced out of the game due to matters of the mind and he is the third English player to do so in the last few years.

Are England players more prone to mental lapses, then? Well, not quite. That question is convoluted and the real question should be: why  are so few players from other countries speaking out?

If one in five people suffer from some sort of depression, whether that is clinical or simply being down in the dumps a bit, then in every cricket squad of 15, there are at least three players who are struggling. Yet, very few have publicly admitted to battling demons. They don’t need to speak out, of course, that’s a personal decision. But, like any other injury, a mental injury is still an injury. Why the silence?

In South Africa, it’s a cultural problem. “Suck it up” is still a very standard response for people dealing with any sort of mental health problems. “Be a man” and phrases in that vein are often thrown around because there is such a severe misunderstanding around issues like stress and mental health. 

Egos are at stake here and many players might view confessing to having mental troubles as being “weak”. They might fear being cast out, labelled, and judged and, heaven forbid, not selected again in the future because they are prone to struggles. One only had to take a glance at the comments on news sites carrying the news about Trott to understand just how misunderstood the problem is and it’s not just from the general public.

Gulam Bodi, the Lions player, Tweeted a comment about how Trott needs “man up” instead of “running scared”. After a flurry of outrage, he quickly deleted his Tweet and wished Trott a speedy recovery. A brief lapse in judgement it might have been, but with proper education around the issue, it never would have happened. If there isn’t even understanding from a fellow professional, how on earth are the public supposed to grasp the issue?

People also seem to question “what do cricketers have to be stressed and depressed about”. That’s another misconception. Stress, depression and other mental health issues do not discriminate. In terms of clinical depression, that is a chemical imbalance in the brain, an injury on a different level which eats you up and leaves you feeling trapped dark, lost, and without hope. External factors might make it worse, but they are not the main contributor.

When it comes to stress and just feeling low, the issue becomes more complicated and perhaps that is why it is so misunderstood. What do cricketers have to be stressed about? Quite a bit, actually.

Cricket is a beast of a game which has heavy demands on players. Time away from home and families, over analysis of one’s failures, constant pressure to perform - on the field, in training, fitness tests and everything else that goes with it takes its toll. Yes, it’s a nice life, but if there is any sort of fragility, those pressures will only exaggerate these issues. Yes, players choose that life when they become professional sportsmen, but they do not choose battling mental issues. These men are just human and humans are fragile.  The lack of understanding for such a simple notion is completely baffling.

The South Africa’s Players' Association has done some excellent work in terms of educating players and making sure those who might be struggling know that help is at hand.  However, the general perception around mental health remains misunderstood.

Many players who struggle with mental illness often say they wish they had a physical injury, so that people could see they are injured and until that dark place - be it shackled by stress or plummeting into the depths of despair - are viewed as “an injury”, it’s unlikely that anyone from any other country will feel comfortable enough to confess to having a problem.

One can only hope that those who are struggling in other countries are quietly reaching out to the help available to them and that egos and fear of stigma isn’t forcing players to suffer in silence.  Staying silent will only increase the problems and the pressure and when these kinds of things build up, it becomes a volatile concoction.

Trott and the others who have spoken out before him on mental battles are breaking the mould. Much of that is thanks to their cricket board.  The ECB have done a wonderful job to make players feel comfortable with being open and public about their struggles. It’s a small step in breaking the stigma that surrounds battles of the brain, even if it is in just one country.

Antoinette Muller is a freelance writer who writes mainly about soccer and cricket for The Daily Maverick or anybody else who will have her...

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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