I just heard about a rather sad story making the sports pages today, and it's sparked a little discussion in my head about mental illness and how we (don't) discuss it very well on a public level.
England cricketer Jonathan Trott announced today that he is leaving the team, and the sport, with immediate effect, due to what is being reported as a "long-standing stress-related condition". According to coach Andy Flower, Trott has been suffering from this condition "for quite a while", especially over the past month where he has had "his ups and downs", but had previously felt confident enough with his condition to play.
I've been reading pretty much every article published here and in Australia, where the England team are currently touring in a two month-long series known as The Ashes, and not one statement from Trott, his coach, his teammates, or his supporters has mentioned what his "stress-related illness" actually is, and not one has labeled it as a mental illness.
I think it's clear to anyone who has ever suffered from mental illness, or known someone who suffers from mental illness, that Trott is suffering from an anxiety disorder, or perhaps depression. The way he plays cricket could be generously described as "meticulous", but usually you see terms such as "highly-strung", "tetchy", or "obsessive-compulsive" describing his habits at the crease.
Over the past few months the focus on these habits and his playing style has increased as a result of his poor form, and pundits have been quick to criticize him for "not having his head in the right place", such as on Saturday when former player and commentator Michael Vaughan wrote in his newspaper column "You do not play shots like the ones he did on Saturday without something being seriously wrong in your mind." Australian cricketer David Warner also had harsh words for Trott after his poor innings this weekend, calling him "pretty poor and weak" and saying he has "scared eyes" - obviously Warner's comments were gamesmanship meant to unsettle the opposition, but in light what we know now I doubt he would be quick to repeat them.
This is the problem when we talk about mental illness in sport. At the highest pinnacles of athletic achievement, where technical abilities are so similar and so refined, the mental aspects of the game become more important. Think of a great sportsperson, someone who rose to the top of their game - perhaps Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods, or Billie Jean King - and think of how you would describe them. I guarantee you one of the first three phrases you come up with is "mentally tough", or perhaps "clutch". The ability to stay cool under pressure and not let things affect you is perhaps the most prized trait in sports - and as such it is incredibly hard for an athlete to do or say anything that might be perceived as weakness.
Of course, no one should be forced to 'out' themselves publicly about a mental health issue - it should be up to each individual person how they choose to cope. But it's pretty obvious that the continued silence regarding mental health in sports drastically effects how the sporting world discusses and deals with these issues when they do spring up. Just read some of the comments by players, coaches, and pundits in response to Trott's admission:
People have stresses in all of their lives but Jonathan Trott felt unable to carry on and if you watched him bat the other day he was clearly suffering and he needs time at home. - Jonathan Agnew, Cricket Commentator
I see this one a lot - the "everyone has stresses" explanation. Trott isn't just suffering from the same stresses that the average person does - he's trying to cope with the insane pressure of being a professional athlete while battling an illness that robs him of the ability to cope with them - a vicious cycle that the "average" person doesn't experience.
"It's amazing news, no one heard any whispers about it over here. You just don't know what is going on in someone's mind and its obviously a highly stressful situation and it just tipped him over the edge." - Nasser Hussain, former England cricketer
"You only really, if you are honest, have to look at the way Jonathan Trottbats to see that he is an anxious individual. This process that he goes through before he starts every innings, he is clearly quite an uptight individual." - Jonathan Agnew
The sense I get from these two quotes is that they are well-meaning, but misunderstand the issue. I think both Agnew and Hussain see Trott's problems as starting and ending on the field of play - something that is a part of his cricket game, brought on and exacerbated by playing, that might go away or get better if he takes some time off.
"I'm desperately sorry for him, he's made exactly the right decision. I think the hardest thing is that it's no visual. I don't know how long its been going on but I criticised him in the second innings and you look back and I wish I hadn't now, I wish I'd have known he was going through troubles." - Michael Vaughan, former player and pundit
As I wrote above, Vaughan had some choice words for Trott after his recent poor run of form, and at least he had the decency to walk back those words after today's revelation. Nevertheless, I feel that if more sportspeople were open about struggles with depression or anxiety - and if the sporting world were more accepting of mental illness - no player suffering from a psychological condition would have to read a pundit writing about "something being seriously wrong in your mind".
The sports media circus is hardly known to be the most tactful or sensitive institution when it comes to issues of mental illness, and once again it shows. A cursory glance at the sports pages of Australia's big newspapers reveals headlines such as "Trott's tour over due to "stress"" - the disbelieving quotes around "stress" and the mischaracterisation of anxiety disorder as a man's inability to cope with pressure make me feel a little sick. The media here in England haven't been much better - Trott's illness is still being treated like a physical injury sustained on the field of play. A "few weeks away from the game" and he'll be alright - he just faced "too much pressure" playing for England - if the coaching staff knew about it beforehand "they have a lot to answer for".
To add (literal) insult to injury, South African cricketer Gulam Bodi taunted Trott in a now-deleted tweet:
"Hahaha, joke of the day! Trott to go home frm the ashes due to stress illness! Bloody man up n take the heat! Stop running for cover"
As long as we treat mental illness and athletic prowess as mutually-exclusive, and as long as we tell men who are brave enough to ask for help that they need to "man up", we will continue to be taken by surprise when an athlete does open up. Treating mental illness as a sign of weakness - particularly when it takes an uncommon strength to live with depression or anxiety day in, day out - will only push more people away from the help they need and preserve a stigma around non-physical illnesses as something to be ashamed of.