Thursday, 2 July 2015

Five top sportsmen and women talk about mental health

It’s one of my favourite times of the year – Wimbledon fortnight! Sport plays such a big part in so many people’s lives, whether as participants or spectators or both. For me – well, playing tennis is definitely not one of my strengths – but I just love to watch or listen on the radio. You can’t help but admire the abilities of top sportsmen and women at the peak of their game.

But there is another side to sport, and particularly over the last few years we have become more aware of the impact that the pressures of playing at the top of your game can potentially have on your mental health. Organisations such as Mind have written on the subject. And it is summed up well by Liz Lockhart on Mentally Healthy:

"We see pictures of athletes enjoying a celebrity life-style, out on the town, mixing with the ‘beautiful people’ but we rarely stop to consider the downside to the pressure that comes with success. Players must feel dreadful ‘lows’ when they are not selected and a huge emptiness when they face retirement.

The message, which must reach the ears of sportsmen and women at all levels in their game, must surely be that they need to recognise when they are having difficulties. To seek help without fear if they feel the need for it, and to realise that their mental health is as paramount as their physical health. You can’t have one without the other."

Here in Powys we have found that when people tell their stories it can be enormously helpful, both to those doing the telling and those listening or reading. So here are links to the stories of five top sportsmen and women who have talked openly about being touched by issues relating to their mental health. Their coping strategies can help all of us looking to improve our own mental health.

Frank Bruno – boxer

Frank is a former British professional boxer who competed for over thirteen years. He won 40 out of 45 bouts, including the World Boxing Council world heavyweight championship in 1995. He retired in 1996 after receiving a serious eye injury during a fight with Mike Tyson.

Rachel Bruno, Frank’s daughter, was 16 years old when her father was first sectioned, aged 41, in 2003. She and her father talk openly and honestly about the impact his mental distress has had on the family on the Time to Change website.

Frank also spoke in 2013 about how returning to boxing training was helping his mental health.

"If you can do some form of exercise, it clears your head, sets you up and paves the way for you….Try and go to yoga, try and do a bit of walking, a little bit of jogging, go to an aerobics club, go to a gym, go to a sauna or swim. Just think healthy and try and do healthy things. Sometimes it clears your head.”

Clarke Carlisle – footballer

Clarke played for a number of top clubs during his 16 year playing career including Queens Park Rangers and Burnley before retiring in 2013. He was also chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association. In 2013 he presented the BBC’s Football’s Suicide Secret programme. 

"I still bear the scars from my battle with mental health. I kept my depression a secret from clubs and teammates for almost two decades and it almost cost me my life….. (Now) I want to do all I can to raise awareness of the importance of mental health - not only to break down the stigma and taboos but also to make sure people know where they can find support."

Clarke now talks about his experiences at conferences and events. In October he will speak about mental well being in the workplace, at a conference in Jersey organised in conjunction with MIND Jersey.

Clara Hughes – cyclist and speed skater

Clara has won medals at both the Winter and Summer Olympics for her home country of Canada. Then her life took a different turn when she began to feel depressed.

“I felt ashamed of how I looked and how I was. It was easier not be around people. I was really afraid and alone.”

She now fronts a national campaign called Let’s Talk, set up to spark a conversation about the realities of mental health and ending the stigma – covering issues just as relevant in the UK as in Canada. She describes how poor mental health impacted on her sport and what happened next in a TV interview.

“More than anything I have ever done in the Olympics this has affected people.”

Sir John Kirwan – rugby player

John played rugby union and rugby league for New Zealand for many years and is now a Rugby Union coach. But he received his knighthood in 2012 for services to mental health as well as rugby.

“One day I was happy go lucky JK … (then) the biggest fear for me was that I was never going to be well again…. " Now he says: "Hang on to hope, grab hold of it.”

Originally he saw seeking help as a weakness, and that he would be regarded as a failure. But then he reached out – he now recognises that depression is not a weakness, it is just something that happens.

John fronted a series of TV interviews in his native New Zealand to combat the stigma associated with depression.

John’s story also features on Whirlwind Stories, a website set up to help enable men to positively embrace their mental health through the sharing of stories.

You can watch a longer interview with John Kirwan at his home in Italy where he shares his strategies for living with depression.

Rebecca Marino – tennis player

Rebecca Marino played tennis professionally for Canada and took on the likes of Venus Williams at the 2010 US Open. A year later, in 2011, she was on the courts at Wimbledon. But she was due at another tournament in the UK when she first spoke to her coach about her depression.

“I was just sad and I couldn’t contain it.”

At first she found it hard to talk to her family and friends about her distress. But when she did, she realised: “Opening up to them was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Rebecca was at the top of her game, number 38 in the world, and yet the saddest she had ever been. At the age of 22 she decided to retire from professional tennis and go to university instead. You can watch her TED talk about her experiences "Slipping Through the Cracks: Pro Athletes and Mental Health".

Rebecca wants to highlight that it’s OK to feel weak or sad and share your feelings. She feels people are slipping through the cracks, even though there are organisations to help people, she feels individuals are scared or do not know where to go for help. This is why she told her story.

Has sport played a role in your mental health journey? Let us know in the comments box below, or email:

1 comment:

  1. Such good article you write,keep it up to posting good news!
    And I think this is the time for us to take serious concern in this matter