It seems like such a glamorous life. Travelling the world and representing your country, all global events and plush hotels. Elite athletes must have it all. But, says a Daily Maverick report, having it all means having the vulnerability of being human, as well as dealing with those vulnerabilities in an alien environment. It often means dealing with those vulnerabilities alone. Sport mirrors life – and the mirror is in desperate need of a clean.
The report says while there has been no rigorous, accurate study on the prevalence of depression or other mental illness in elite athletes, many estimate that, on average, 15% will suffer from depression in their lifetime.
In recent years, it has become more common for athletes to speak out; from Serena Williams discussing postpartum depression to Michael Phelps revealing his struggle with substance abuse and Missy Franklin sharing her battle with the so-called “invisible” illness. The report says discussing the realities of mental health is slowly being normalised, but athletes still fear stigma and, as a result, often do not seek the help to get better.
In 2016, two studies in the US and Australia showed that between 24% to 27% of elite athletes suffer from depression, a high statistic when the figure for the general population is believed to be around 10%. Research also suggests that athletes competing in individual sports are at higher risk compared to those within team sports.
Stigma is one thing but, the report says, in many parts of the world, including South Africa, help is sometimes just not available. It’s frequently the team psychologist who gets the cut from the travelling party to save on costs, despite psychological health being paramount to high performance.
It’s not only elite athletes who struggle either. In junior academies, school set-ups, provincial sides and at universities, young people are affected by issues they often don’t have the maturity to understand.
But, the report says, there are people slowly chipping away to try to change the landscape. Across the world, federations and governments are slowly cottoning on. In 2018, the British government announced a new action plan to help protect the mental health of athletes, with provision for giving coaches and support staff extra training to spot the signs of poor mental health. And in South Africa, Varsity Sports launched their Speak Up campaign in 2018 – an awareness initiative running alongside all their sporting competitions.
When German international goalkeeper Enke took his own life, his widow was brutally honest about the fears he had over discussing his illness and what impact that might have on his career and personal life. Speed, the ex-Everton and Newcastle midfielder and Welsh national team coach who also took his own life, battled the same demons. His sister Lesley said in the documentary, Football’s Suicide Secret, back in 2013: “He hid it from us, because people who are suffering from depression are not only fighting the illness, but they are fighting the stigma that goes with it. It probably stopped him from asking for help from within his job.”
The report says despite it all, substantial and nuanced research into the mental health of athletes does not exist. In South Africa, the silence that surrounds the battles has been deafening. Until now.
Four brave, elite athletes – Robbie Kempson, Lee-Ann Persse, Phumelela Mbande and Sanani Mangisa – have shared their stories in the hope of shedding the stigma, not just for those involved in sport but for anyone suffering in silence. These stories give insight to the other side of elite sport. A reminder that behind the tough exterior, there are vulnerable humans who deserve more than inane abuse on social media – and who are defined by so much more than mere results.
Most important, they aim to shine a light on just how much more federations and unions need to do to live up to their duty of care in a high-performance environment. Never again can they say they did not know.Daily Maverick report