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Mental health in elite sport

When a well-known sports person speaks publicly about their struggles with depression it is a reflex response to talk about how a show of vulnerability from a profession synonymous with strength will help remove the stigma for fellow sufferers. This is, of course, entirely right. Undiagnosed depression is a killer. Diagnosed it can be soothed and managed and placed in remission.

And yet it is tempting to hope this stigma is not as widely felt as it once was. Young people in particular – despite being informed with tedious regularity how fragile they are – do not appear to see the depression or melancholia as something to be ashamed of or diminished by.

Perhaps it depends where you start from. If your first love was books or music you are unlikely to have retained for very long the impression darkness and doubt are an unusual part of life. Some of my own favourite people growing up included George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Philip Larkin, Leonard Cohen and Kurt Cobain. Yep. Fun house party right there.

It seems likely all these people were driven to a degree by what we call depressive moods, by the power and the horror of the long black cloud. As Larkin once said: “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” And Larkin’s instinct is right. The idea of “happiness” as a sustained, ongoing state is a fiction invented by magazines in the 1950s. Walking around Being Happy – the ecstasies of the perfect life, perfect smiling family, perfect gleaming kitchen countertops – is not the human experience.

In reality we have always been complex robots, hard‑wired for pain and joy. Read a Middle English poem and even in those muscular times the dominant themes are ruined halls and moss-covered castles, decay and Weltschmerz. These feelings are glorified, wrung out, waved about like a warrior’s battleaxe. No stigma here; just a shared human lament.

There is of course a reason for going on about this on the sports pages. Danny Rose’s decision to talk with great clarity in midweek about his own clinical depression, a material consideration on the eve of England’s World Cup departure, was a deeply moving interlude. It is easy to lose sight of the fact the person in front of the board covered in adverts isn’t a want-away left-back, or an invulnerable millionaire (the most idiotic of obstacles to empathy) but an average human. Perhaps even a slightly more vulnerable human than the rest of us, more of which in a second.

The fact Rose felt able to speak like this is credit to his own emotional intelligence, and to the atmosphere created by the admirable Gareth Southgate. Frankly, I don’t care what England do from here, how it goes in the usual fretful clinches when suddenly England’s players become frazzled and fraught, hair tousled, cheeks flushed, always somehow facing the wrong way. This team can lose to Panama if they want. It already feels like it exists for a reason.

There is one point, though. As usual the coverage of Rose’s depression has dwelt on the idea that “even” athletes – so resilient, so glossily handsome – can suffer depression; the suggestion they are helping us to see that even the strong can be afflicted.

This is true of course. But there is also evidence to suggest the opposite, that elite athletes are more prone to depression than regular humans, that it is us who should be taking extra care of them.

In 2016 academics from Loughborough University, among them David Fletcher and Hannah Newman, produced a paper on the relationship between mental illness and elite sport. Their conclusions suggest that despite being considered “especially resilient” elite athletes – with their drive, their fire, their (let’s face it) quite strange obsession with reductive physical exercises – are more vulnerable, not less.

It isn’t hard to follow the paper’s reasoning. In its basic form sport is a balm to feelings of anxiety. Over time as a professional the cartoonish pressures start to outweigh the relief. Elite athletes find themselves subject to forces that pick away at their vulnerability rather than soothing it. Eventually “they can no longer escape from their symptoms, with or without sport”.

At which point, enter Tyson Fury. Fury’s doctrinal views on many issues may be inconsistent with liberal enlightenment, or indeed any kind of logic. But he remains compelling, clever, honest, infuriating and a brilliant boxer, capable of brawling like his legendary bare-knuckle forebear Bartley Gorman, great dangling arms pumping like piston hammers; but also coming out and bamboozling Vladimir Klitschko with his craft, head bobbing constantly like a cat preparing to pounce at a fly.

Fury has lived half a lifetime in his 900 days away. His story is one of struggle and self-medication against demons that aren’t just in his head but seem at times to be right there in the room with him. It would be heartening to see him start to win again, just as I’d love to see Rose storming down the left as England surge towards World Cup glory.

Really, though, the urge is simply to see them both feel better, to find the joy and release sport in its pure form can bring. At the very least it is worth remembering that while what they do brings joy it is a form of human extremity in every sense.

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