Suffering in silence: What makes depression so prevalent among cricketers?

Time away from home, the pressures of top-level sport, and even the game itself play a part. Antoinette Muller speaks to some of the players about why mental health problems are still a taboo subject in professional cricket.

Swanky hotels all around the world, big pay checks, playing sport to pay the bills and adoring fans who will do anything just for a photo with you. Sounds like fun, right? It is, for most of the time. But cricket, more than any other sports, lends itself to depression and worse, suicide.

David Firth has written two books on the subject, Silence of the Heart: Cricket Suicides and By His Own Hand. Both which examine the phenomena of cricketers who have killed themselves. From Sid Barnes and James Burke in the 1970s and Montague Druitt in as far back as the 1800s. The accounts are harrowing. Burke, an Australian cricketer and a Wisden Cricketer once upon a time, went on to become a commentator. While on commentary duty during an Ashes Test, he bought a gun from a sporting goods store and killed himself. He was 48 and he is just one of many.

If cricket mirrors life, and many believe that it does, then the mirror is looking pretty filthy. Averages suggest that one in six men will have depression and at least 15 per cent of elite athletes will suffer with mental illness. The issues for footballers are already well-documented, but what makes it so prevalent in cricket?  

Time away from home is one factor. Players can spend as much as half the year away on tour and a lot of that time is spent idly. Players remember their failings rather than their successes and while waiting around to bat or bowl, a brutal and unforgiving self-analysis is done too.

“I think the reason we see so many cricketers suffer from it is the time involved in playing cricket. It’s a game that's played over a long period of time,” South African team manager Dr Mohammed Moosajee explains.

“There are long periods away from home, there's a lot of idle time between games and during games, especially in Tests. Some players might spend a day or two days in the dressing room because they're a bowler and the team is out there batting,” he said.

Graeme Fowler, who played twenty-one Tests for England, was diagnosed with depression after his playing career. While there are theories that some people who are predisposed to depression are attracted to the game, Fowler reckons it’s simply because there are so many factors involved in cricket that can tinker your thinking.

“Cricket is such a bloody frustrating game. If you're a top order batsmen, you can be playing well, but then things start going wrong. And you start worrying about your place in the team being under threat and then your contract being under threat. Cricket buggers your mind up,” Fowler told the New Statesman.

Fowler was only diagnosed in 2004, long after he’d already retired, but admits that when he looks back now, there might have been some episodes during his playing career.

“I used to take about five days off at the end the season playing for Lancashire. I’d shut the windows, draw the curtains, lock the door, unplug the phone and then just watch videos. I’d just be on the sofa and not talk to anyone for four or five days. In my way, for me that was mentally recharging my batteries.

“When you’re playing professional cricket, you have to go out and play even if you’re not feeling physically well or mentally well. I believed that my reservoirs of mental energy were depleted by the end of the season.
“I never experienced depression as I now know it as a player, but looking back, there could have been tiny little episodes, but I had a mechanism in dealing with them,” Fowler recalls.

Fowler was deflated by his illness at one stage that he didn’t leave the house for six weeks and found it physically impossible to do simple tasks like make a cup of tea. Before seeking help, he hid it for a long time, but it was his wife who eventually convinced him to go see a doctor. Everyone who suffers from depression will recognise that, but the thought that it’s an illness still hasn’t quite latched on.

“I sometimes wish I had an arm in a cast or a stitched up head, because people can see that injury, but they can’t always see that you’re mentally injured,” Fowler says.

Part of the reason why the diagnosis might have taken a while is that during Fowler’s career in the 1980s, sports psychologists were still a novel concept and while they are almost part of teams these days, dealing with mental issues is still a bit of a sensitive point.

"If I mentioned, when I was playing, that I wanted to see a sports psychologist, the first question would have been what's that? The second one would be what's wrong with you?

"It's taken a long time for people to realize there doesn't have to be something wrong with you when you're seeing a psychologist. You're just trying to improve your mental state to make you a better player. That's now accepted, but mental health issues are still lagging behind.”

Some big-name players have admitted to struggling with issues. Marcus Trescothick, Michael Yardy, Steve Davies, Andrew Flintoff and other England internationals have all revealed their struggles. It was Trescothick who prompted former New Zealand international Iain O’Brien to face up to his problems.

O’Brien was one of the first professional players to blog and tweet about his “demons”. On the back of Marcus Trescothick  revealing his struggles, O’Brien decided to do the same. 

“I also thought, if I can speak about this and just get one person to recognize that they are sick and then go seek help, then I’ve done good. I know of about six people who have sought help because of me speaking out and I think that’s pretty cool,” O’Brien said.

He still speaks openly about his issues and has worked with the Professional Cricketers' Association to put together a series called Mind Matters – educational videos which helps inform players about mental health issues.

While players speaking out about depression is becoming more common, O’Brien warns that there’s the risk that people might think depressed cricketers are a cliché.

“We have to be careful about getting to a point where we think, “oh no, here we go again”. It’s a serious illness and it needs to be treated as such. I am concerned also that we'll eventually end up with people thinking ‘oh, another sportsman suffering from depression: they live a great life’. Yeah, we do live great lives, but depression doesn't pick you based on your lifestyle. And we need to just take some care in how it's talked about when people speak up about suffering from depression,” says O’Brien.

Fowler had a similar experience. He had everything anyone could want when he was diagnosed and was always told that “there must be some reason”, but the former Test player says that there just sometimes isn’t one.

For both men, speaking out is important, not just for cricketers, but in the greater scheme of things. If a conversation can start, based on cricketers’ issues, and eventually encourage others to speak up then, perhaps, the dark misted stigma surrounding mental health issues will eventually start to evaporate.

"If you mention things like anxiety or depression then people are still a bit apprehensive. But it is getting better. We have to get to a stage where we have to be able to face these things to make people's lives better. It's good if what might be termed as the 'normal' population who can look at players like Marcus Trescothick and think if he can admit to having mental health issues, then maybe I can too,” Fowler says.

Both men live normal lives and have gone on to great things since retiring. O’Brien runs an underwear company and has written a children’s book and works as a broadcaster. Staying busy has helped him cope. Fowler works as a coach at Durham University and ensures that his students are aware that help is at hand.

Cricketers talking about depression is very progressive in England, but the conversation is still very much lagging behind in other countries. In India, for instance, the stigma is huge and there isn’t even a players’ association to help raise awareness.

O’Brien believes that those who aren’t talking about it aren’t doing because they’re scared, but rather because those who struggle with depression don’t feel as if though anybody cares about listening to their issues.

"It's typical human behaviour to keep your issues to yourself. You sometimes wonder why somebody else would want to hear you talk about your issues. That's the lie we believe because of where you are mentally.”
The former New Zealand bowler believes that knowing what the symptoms are is an important step forward.

"Until you see a list of symptoms you recognise, you'll probably just think you're feeling a bit shit. That’s probably the best adjective to use. My big hope is that, starting with cricket and then moving into every other industry, there will be posters up that list a check list of symptoms. Not only does that make it easier to recognise yourself, but it might help others start a conversation with people showing those symptoms. I want those posters in change rooms and lunchrooms around cricket grounds all over the world.”

The current rate of suicide in England is currently 10.4 deaths per 100,000 people and depression and anxiety affects almost one in five adults in the United Kingdom. With such galling statistics, O’Brien certainly has a point. Depression awareness is the key to preventing unnecessary deaths. Not just for elite sportsmen and women, but for those “normal” people who suffer in silence.
 

Iain O'Brien playing for New Zealand in 2009. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The great revolt

The vote for Brexit has plunged Labour and the Conservatives into crisis.

Britain has taken a great leap into the unknown. More than four decades after joining the European Economic Community, it has turned its back on a union of 27 other nations and 500 million people at a time of profound crisis in Europe. For the European Union, which has helped maintain peace and security in Europe for half a century, it is a great blow. The shock waves are being felt across the world.

We respect the wishes of the 17 million people who voted for Leave but strongly believe it was the wrong decision. Britain will be a diminished force for good in the world, unable to influence and shape events in Europe and beyond. The UK’s reputation as a proud, outward-looking, liberal and tolerant nation has been damaged. Many Britons feel that they no longer recognise or understand their own country, while foreign nationals living in Britain feel similarly perplexed, and even afraid. Young people, who voted overwhelmingly for Remain and will have to live with the consequences of Brexit the longest, are understandably aggrieved. Yet we should not condemn those who voted for Brexit, especially the less fortunate; rather, we should seek to understand and explain.

The only good thing to say about the referendum campaign is that it is over. Seldom have facts mattered so little, and nastiness and smears been allowed to carry the day. The Leave campaign was built on half-truths, false promises and more than a whiff of xenophobia. Its leaders dismissed warnings of negative consequences of Brexit – for the economy, and for the unity and political stability of the UK – as “Project Fear”. The Remain campaign’s intention may have been to scare voters with the claims, but that does not make them untrue.

Since the result became known, the pound has tumbled to a 30-year low against the US dollar. The FTSE 250 index of shares – the best proxy for the British economy – is down 11 per cent, even after a bounce on Tuesday. This is worrying for anyone who has a pension and is near retirement. Companies that were considering investing in Britain have put their plans on hold. Several big banks are weighing up whether to shift their operations abroad. Inflation is likely to rise and economic growth to fall. A recession is looming and many jobs will be lost. And for what? A vainglorious attempt by a feeble prime minister to settle a long-burning feud in the Conser­vative Party, and to satisfy the demands of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and the xenophobic right-wing press.

Investors hate uncertainty, but uncertainty is about the only thing that can be guaranteed. The breaThe vote for Brexit has plunged Labour and the Conservatives into crisis.k-up of the UK, only narrowly averted in 2014, is perhaps inevitable, with all the consequences for Britain as a world power. Scots voted to stay in the EU, and who can blame First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for agitating for a second independence referendum? Why should the Scottish people be dragged out of the EU against their democratically expressed wishes?

The vote for Brexit has plunged Labour and the Conservatives into crisis. David Cameron, who so recklessly gambled the country’s future on the referendum and will for ever be defined by his calamitous error, will be gone in September, his premiership an abject failure. His successor may well be the preposterous and mendacious Boris Johnson. Wit, ­energy and bombast are poor substitutes for truthfulness, honour and competence.

In his £5,000-a-week column for the Daily Telegraph on 26 June, Mr Johnson said that the Leave victory was not driven by fears over immigration, and the pound and the markets were stable. Both claims were false, as he well knew. His assertion that Britons’ rights to live, study, work and own property in Europe would be unaffected was equally misleading – this will have to be negotiated.

Not only are the Leave leaders in denial about the consequences of Brexit, they have given scandalously little thought to how Britain’s new relationship with the European Union might work in practice. The EU – which, as we said two weeks ago, is a troubled and failing institution – is in no mind to grant the UK any favours. Nor should it.

Mr Johnson wrote that Britain’s “access to the single market” will continue. As any of the “experts” of whom the Leave leaders were so dismissive during the campaign could have explained, for a non-member to obtain access to the EU’s single market, of the sort that Norway enjoys, it must accept freedom of movement. Perhaps Mr Johnson, who some suspect was a reluctant Brexiteer at heart, may be willing to accept this compromise if he becomes prime minister, as seems likely. Yet the majority of Leave voters will not: if it is forced upon them, their rage will make the anger that fuelled Brexit look like a child’s tantrum.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies