Friday, 25 March 2011

Why we need to raise awareness of depression

Unusually for a Scot, I'm a big cricket fan.

I'm less of a fan of Geoff Boycott, who really should be retired from broadcasting in the same way that Andy Gray and Richard Keys were. A fine player he may have been, but when it comes to behaving in an appropriately sensitive matter when talking about someone who is depressed he clearly has a lot to learn.

England all-rounder Michael Yardy has returned from the Cricket World Cup suffering from depression. I like Yardy as a player, but have even more admiration for his courage and strength in being so open about his difficulties at what is obviously a tough time for him.

Not Boycott though, who views depression as a sign of weakness. Says the former England batsman:

"He must have been reading my comments about his bowling – it must have upset him.

"Obviously it was too much for him at this level. If any blame is attached it's partly to the selectors because I'm sorry, he's not good enough at this level."
This backward-looking approach is sadly not uncommon. Andy Goram suffered from the same attitudes when he withdrew from the Scotland squad, stating he was "not mentally attuned". Another England cricketer, Marcus Trescothick, retired prematurely from the international game - citing depression as the reason - and was subjected to the same lack of understanding from some quarters.

Boycott did express some sympathy for Yardy but clearly he struggles to identify depression as an illness and instead views it as a symptom of weakness. "I've been good enough … until you've had depression, I don't think you're qualified to talk about it." Right, Geoffrey. So why are you talking about it and making a value judgement on the basis of ill health?

Actually, you don't have to be a doctor to understand what depression does to people. It doesn't take an expert to recognise that it is an illness, and a pretty debilitating one at that. It leaves sufferers with feelings of hopelessness and despair. It drives some to suicide. What depressed people don't need, especially when they've had the courage to speak openly about their problems, is unfairly judgemental attitudes from people who really should know better.

It does raise the question of how sport deals with mental ill-health. Having played football at a half-decent level and known a lot of professionals, I am aware that if the perceived glamour of sport is stripped away you're often left with the uncomfortable truth that many sportspersons are young people, often away from home for the first time, struggling to forge a career in a hostile environment with a "survival of the fittest" mentality. Depression is far more common in sportsmen than many of us might think and yet there is not only limited support available, there remain unhelpful attitudes towards mental ill-health. Admittedly, the sporting world does not mean to be institutionally intolerant towards depression or any other illness, but there are misunderstandings that need to be corrected.

There is also a pressing need to develop a more effective network of support. For every Michael Yardy with the courage to speak out there are scores of others struggling alone. They deserve better than Boycott's ignorance. But they also need sporting authorities to take action to promote depression awareness with the same determination with which they have challenged attitudes towards homosexuality and race.


Lee said...

'Not Boycott though, who views depression as a sign of weakness. Says the former England batsman:'

Well, either depression's a sign of weakness or it's a sign of strength. Personally I'm with Geoffrey on this one.

Andrew said...

You're entitled to your opinion Lee.

However, I have worked in mental health for several years in additio to working closely with charities that increase awareness of issues surrounding depression.

Obviously they need to do a bit more, because it is simply not true to say that "either depression's a sign of weakness or it's a sign of strength". It's neither. It's an illness, that affects all types of people. An illness that there is treatment available for. It may be a sign of other underlying medical conditions but it can never be taken as an indicator of someone's personal strength (or otherwise).

Stuart said...

Well said Andrew.

Attitudes like Lees really prove how right you are.

If Lee really thinks that depression is a sign of weakness then he really is, as Geoffrey himself nicely put it, "not qualified to talk about it".

There are many people who suffer from depression and are clearly strong characters. You can tell this by what they achieve in spite of it.

Take Stephen Fry.

Or Frank Bruno.

Or Kirsten Dunst, Spike Milligan, John Lennon, Eminem, Jim Carrey, Winston Churchill, Anne Hathaway, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Robbie Williams and J.K. Rowling.

What do all these people have in common apart from being famous? Well, no-one would consider them WEAK, that's for sure.

This is also true of myself and other people who have experienced depression. Many of us are very strong people which is why we keep going in spite of it.

Obviously Lee feels qualified to assess someone's strength and weakness of the basis of the illnesses they suffer. To a point I could understand such ignorance if it wasn't for the fact that I've looked at his blog and discovered he has his own problems. I wouldn't make judgements about him based on his condition, so why should Lee make judgements about me and others like me?

Andrew said...

Thanks for your heartfelt contribution Stuart. I agree with you entirely.