Trott off: cricketer Jonathan Trott at the Ashes in Brisbane, November 2013. (Photo: Getty)
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Cricketer Jonathan Trott's admission he was burnt out, not depressed was brave and honest

We rely too much on psychobabble as an alternative to human judgement. 

What a sad situation, in which it is considered heroic to admit to depression but cowardly to concede that you are burnt out. Jonathan Trott, the England cricketer who left the Ashes tour of Australia last November with a “stress-related illness”, has found himself doubly skewered by media oversimplification. First, wrongly assuming that he was “depressed”, pundits rushed to parade their caring sensitivity. Now that Trott has confirmed he was “burnt out” rather than depressed, some of the same voices have turned against him for lacking grit and deliberately conning the public.

The assumptions here are baffling. In defining psychological illness as “legitimate” and relative incapacity as “illegitimate”, we encourage the delusion that mental health is a binary issue. In reality, it is a wide spectrum and where each person stands is constantly in flux. Trott is, in effect, now being accused of not being depressed enough. So what will happen in future cases? It will be tempting for any player facing a similar situation to make sure he really does have depression before coming home, either by playing on past breaking point or else by securing a more categorical medical diagnosis.

It was once taboo to admit to depression. That is no longer the case, thanks in part to the honesty of sportsmen (such as Marcus Trescothick) who have confronted the issue. Yet one taboo has been replaced by another. It is now taboo to admit that you cannot cope but do not have depression. This position is no less dangerous.

It is a mark of stupidity to argue that professional sportsmen should remember that millions of fans dream of playing for England. Millions also dream of artistic genius, though history confirms that isn’t easy either. Everyone has a breaking point, no matter how fulfilling the activity. The same applies to those in less high-profile jobs. Many professionals, whether in the classroom or the boardroom, reach a stage at which they cannot cope. To use Trott’s phrase, they are burnt out, unable to function in their job. The best thing – sometimes the only thing – is to step back from the firing line.

Mental strength is not always about never giving in. It is sometimes about taking a break before the wheels fall off completely. I have seen people in several different professions lose their judgement and effectiveness as a result of a bloody-minded refusal to take time off. Tough? No, misguided.

But how could Trott abandon his team-mates during the challenge of an Ashes tour? Speaking as an ex-captain, if one of my players came to me saying he could no longer cope, I would wrestle with one question: is he correct in that assessment? If so, he ought to be removed immediately. The appropriate terminology – depressed, burned out, shot, cracked – would not concern me. When you’ve gone, you’ve gone.

One charge levelled at Trott is dishonesty: that he deliberately used the cloak of depression to hide from humiliation at the hands of Australia’s fast bowler Mitchell Johnson. Trott never used the word “depression”. The countless newspaper columns and radio phone-ins about the illness exploited an unclear situation. Trott’s problems became a convenient peg – the wrong peg, it turned out.

That is why, soon after Trott returned home, I wrote an article cautioning against the assumption that he had depression. My perspective was very different. Trott probably did not have depression but that did not make his exit dishonourable. Is it not possible to have sympathy, even respectful sympathy, for someone who has simply run out of resilience?

The England and Wales Cricket Board is now under fire for its original press release, which stated that an “incredibly talented cricketer” was leaving the tour with a “stress-related illness”. There is only one untruth there and it is an accidental one. Trott is not incredibly talented. Not by the standards of international sport. He is far less talented than Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen and also Owais Shah and Ed Joyce, both of whom played much less for England. When I first encountered Trott playing for Warwickshire in 2003, he was a marginal player at county level, ranked as their sixth- or seventh-best batsman.

It was performance rather than potential, his ability to get the job done, that allowed Trott to rise through the ranks. When he forced his way into the England team in 2009, leading judges described his selection as a damning indictment of the talent available in county cricket. He responded with a century on debut.

My point? Trott is an overachiever. No one – not a single team-mate, opponent or pundit – ever predicted that he would average a remarkable 46 in Test cricket. Where other players could rely on God-given gifts, Trott had to dig deep into his reserves of resilience. Scoring runs did not come easily to him. It was an intense effort of willpower and concentration. I always sensed that failure took a lot out of him – a symptom of the depth of his investment in success.

The pub-level debate about Trott’s mental state lurches on in the media, giddily accelerating towards the wrong conclusions: never happened in the war, they’ve all gone soft, can’t take a bit of pressure, and so on. But far from being a talented flake, Trott maximised his gift before finding, eventually, that he had nothing left to give. I perceive only honour, no shame.

We are too reliant on medical terminology as an alternative to human judgement. Even if they are not clinically depressed, many top professionals reach a point where they cannot function in their job. To admit this is not to indulge softness but to accept a fact of life. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.