Athletes are as prone to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues as anyone else, but what can be done to help?
Pursuit of glory inevitably comes with its costs and, for some athletes, the price to be paid is an emotional crash of the most debilitating variety.
Dame Kelly Holmes is among those to have spoken of the depression she suffered as she struggled to overcome injuries a year before her double Olympic triumph in 2004.
“For me, the desire to be successful took its toll and I couldn’t handle the disappointment of my body constantly letting me down,” she says.
She is far from alone. Andy Baddeley (pictured), Britain’s former No.1 1500m runner, has spoken openly about his own battles with depression and written a blog for the mental health charity, Mind.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning,” Baddeley wrote. “It shouldn’t be – I have a beautiful wife and an amazing baby daughter.”
He added that his struggles with injuries led to a lack of self-identity. “Athletics’ beauty is in its simplicity,” he said. “It is completely objective. Cross the line first. Run the fastest time. But what happens when you don’t cross the line first or run the fastest time?”
Jack Green’s world crumbled when he fell in the semi-final of the 400m hurdles at the 2012 Olympics, his ensuing depression at times leaving him suicidal.
It led him away from the sport for 18 months but, following a period in which he took medication and received support from a psychiatrist organised by British Athletics, he returned and made the team for Rio last year.
“Unfortunately, depression is a horrible thing, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone and hopefully it doesn’t happen again,” Green says. “I’ll spend the rest of my life with depression but I know how to handle it.”
When she announced her retirement in 2012, the 2008 Olympic 400m hurdles bronze medallist, Natasha Danvers, revealed she had been treated for depression during her career and that her illness culminated in a suicide attempt.
But what is being done to support athletes in emotional freefall? Dr David Fletcher, a researcher in performance psychology at Loughborough University, recently collaborated with sports scientists at the Open University to analyse the autobiographies of 12 professional sports men and women – from eight different sports. Their results, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, provide a poignant reminder that success can come at a price.
Here, with the help of Dr Fletcher, we investigate the facts behind the dark side of sport:
Is depression more prevalent in sport?
One in five Britons experience mental health issues and Dr Fletcher says studies suggest it’s a similar figure in sport.
“There are certain stressors that exacerbate depression in sportspeople, but athletic achievement can also raise self-esteem, masking and burying some of the issues,” he says. “Depression is not any more prevalent among athletes, but what sport adds is an extra dimension to mental health issues, bringing its own complexities and problems to add to the mix.”
Some of the unique factors that contributed to depressive episodes among the athletes Fletcher has studied included the pressure to maintain lottery funding, suffering injuries and problematic relationships with team-mates or coaches.
At what age are athletes most at risk?
There are no age restrictions when it comes to mental health issues.
Retirement – even the looming threat of it – was also commonly cited as a trigger in Fletcher’s research. Sports careers are, at best, ephemeral, but can also be cut short with speed by injury, illness or loss of form.
When all you’ve known is the treadmill of training and competition in pursuit of excellence, a life without it can seem a cavernous gloom.
“A lot of people struggle toward the ends of their careers,” Fletcher says. “It’s one of the areas that has been addressed by UK Sport and by sports psychologists and we are way ahead of the USA and Australia in helping athletes deal with it, but we still don’t full fully understand the impact.”
Equally, anxiety and depression can strike at the beginning of an athlete’s career. “We have to recognise depressive symptoms and problems at an earlier age,” Fletcher says. “A lot of mental health issues in athletes first rear their heads at as young as 11 or 12 years old. Yet we often have trainee psychologists looking after younger athletes. This needs to change.”
Is sport a catalyst for depression?
Sport, by its very nature, is insular, requiring a level of self-absorption that psychologists say can border on the unhealthy. This is particularly true of individual pursuits like athletics, in which solitude and self-analysis can become overwhelming. But Fletcher says sport cannot be held to ransom.
“There is never a single cause of depression and, like the general population, athletes are complex human beings who react differently to different events,” he says. “But in addition to the kind of normal life stressors people experience like paying the mortgage and dealing with bereavements, sport brings added pressures and something as seemingly irrelevant as getting their diet right or coping with extensive travelling can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Individual v team sports
Towards the end of last year, German researchers reporting to the British Psychological Society’s annual sport and exercise conference revealed solo sports men and women are not only more prone to depression, but also to a range of depressive symptoms generally than those who play team sports.
“Individual athletes attribute failure more to themselves than team sports athletes,” said Professor Jurgen Beckmann, chair of sports psychology at the Technical University of Munich. “They take the blame more than team players. On a team there is a diffusion of responsibility, as social psychologists would say, compared with the performance of an individual athlete.”
Fletcher says that some people are attracted to certain sports because it suits their personality. “Sometimes introverts are more drawn to individual sports,” he says. “You see it in other walks of life where people are drawn to professions that suit their extrovert or introvert nature.”
Studies generally show that anxiety and depression are more common among introverts, but the link is far from clear-cut. One of the surprising findings from the new German research was that team players were more prone to succumbing to pressures of perfectionism, associated stress and burnout than individual athletes.
What can be done?
The UKA welfare department tells AW that athletes of any level should never be worried about raising mental health issues with a coach, parent, team manager or doctor who can access support from the team.
“We empathise that it can be a very daunting step for individuals to acknowledge that there is a problem,” acknowledges the UKA welfare department.
“As a sport, we work tirelessly to remove the stigma and instill the confidence that it is okay to talk about mental health issues. But the first step is acknowledging that there may be a problem and then taking the necessary steps to address that health issue by talking to someone.”
Making an appointment with your GP is an important and vital step as “it is essential for the GP to lead on the clinical assessment process and ensure accurate referrals are put in place”.
» For more advice about depression and other mental health issues, visit mind.org.uk