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 Yet one taboo has been replaced by another.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)