It is the illness that dare not speak its name. Mental health has traditionally been one of sport’s great taboos; nobody talked about it, and those who did risked ridicule and career suicide.
For instance, footballer Stan Collymore was openly ridiculed by his then manager John Gregory and the press when he sought treatment for depression in 1999. When boxer Frank Bruno was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, the ever-sensitive Sun ran the headline ‘Bonkers Bruno locked up’ – although this was changed in later editions.
It’s no wonder sports stars keep things bottled up. Admitting to a perceived weakness in the macho world of sport is just not done; they could be considered unstable or unreliable by managers, and opposition players and fans would ruthlessly use it against them.
The tragic death of German goalkeeper Robert Enke demonstrates an extreme conclusion of this stigma and the fear of its effects.
But Enke’s death may prove to be a turning point in addressing mental health stigma in sport – and more widely. The story was reported around the world and gave people an insight into the mind of someone with depression.
This was followed last night by an Inside Sport special on BBC1. The programme took a considered look at mental health problems in sport – including high-profile cases such as cricketer Marcus Trescothick and Bruno.
The programme eschewed sensationalism and gave them time to explain how they feel when they are suffering problems and – just as importantly – how they manage it and now lead ‘normal’ lives again.
The fact that these two, and others, such as Serena Williams, Neil Lennon and Ronnie O’Sullivan have ‘come out’ and admitted to having mental health problems is helping to slowly break down the stigma.
It shouldn’t be surprising that sportspeople suffer mental health problems, because the pressures must be intense; coping with the expectations of coaches, fans and the media; trying to be the best in the world; dealing with the highs and lows that sport brings; keeping at the peak of physical fitness, for example.
After all, they aren’t superhuman. While some may be fabulously remunerated for, essentially, playing games for a living, it doesn’t change their basic human nature. Money doesn’t make you happy.
While Robert Enke’s death shows how deeply ingrained the stigma of mental health problems – or fear of stigma – still is, people are beginning to understand more about it and that it is an illness and not simply a case of someone ‘pulling themselves together’. Today, Collymore and Bruno would be viewed much more sympathetically, including by the national media.
Programmes like Inside Sport, and idolised sports stars admitting their problems, will help to change attitudes. It may be a long, slow process, but it is changing and hopefully that will mean that there will not be more cases like Enke in the future.