#childrensmhw | Sport and Depression: What, Why and How to Help
I knew something wasn’t quite right. The overwhelming urge to cry was like a thick, wet blanket covering my every spark of joy. I walked quickly out of the room, away from my family, and sat down on the steps off the veranda. What was wrong with me? I had recently retired from swimming, immediately after having swum in my most successful Paralympic Games, the excitement was still fresh, the celebrations still going on, the buzz was still there …. right? Wrong. That particular afternoon the buzz had gone. Instead, these foreign feelings had flooded my synapses, turning feelings of joy and happiness into a strange concoction of panic and flatness, resulting in my first real experience of what anxiety and depression could feel like. I remember mum following me outside and asking me what was wrong. I told her, “It’s alright mum, I just feel like I need to cry a little, it will pass.” She gave me a hug and went back into the house.
Depression and sport is usually discussed within the realms of sport (or exercise) helping people with depression to get better, but what happens when elite sports people, people who exercise every single day, end up with depression? It is not an uncommon phenomenon and, in recent years, as more and more sports people are opening up and being honest about their mental health, it has become accepted that depression can affect anyone at any time, and that we need strategies for all to help prevent and overcome. Firstly, though, we need to understand why elite athletes suffer from depression at all.
Elite athletes, you know, the Olympians and Paralympians, cricketers, rugby players, footballers, tennis stars, etc, are often seen as “having it all”; the money, prestige, success… and people can and will ask “what do they have to be depressed about?” But depression in itself is not that simple, and neither is an elite athlete’s life. When you are training for the Olympics, or the Rugby World Cup, or a Grand Slam, you are privileged in many ways; you get to travel the world, see amazing sights, meet interesting people. Yet, you also have a routine that must be maintained, a training schedule that takes precedence over everything else, and an intense focus on success, and the intensity can be soul destroying; it can lead to anxiety, and to depression.
So what are the things that can interrupt this lifestyle? Injury, for elite athletes, is the big one. All athletes live in fear of injury; something that can take you out of the biggest competition of your life, or even take you out of the sport completely. Events in life outside of sport can cause a halt and also a conflict in responsibility and desire - a death, a birth, or any other major life event can turn an athlete’s life upside-down and inside-out. Also, living out of a suitcase isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I missed birthdays, christenings, and other important celebratory dates because of traveling for swimming. My parents and I didn’t have a holiday for SEVEN years, and my friendships were intermittent as I couldn’t socialise like a normal teenager; no parties or trips to the movies at night when you have to be up at 4.30am the next day. And then, of course, there is the big R word - Retirement. When you have given your life over to such an intense purpose for several years, when that purpose isn’t there anymore, it can be extremely tough to cope. After I retired, I really struggled with what my new purpose was, meaning in my life seemed to diminish, and I felt listless and directionless.
"Depression doesn’t discriminate" @esioul #childrensmhw #MHCPUK
These feelings are all things that we can feel at different times in our lives - regardless of whether you are an elite athlete or an accountant, scientist, musician, receptionist, carpenter, teacher, or student. Depression doesn’t discriminate, and because of this we can take a look at what elite athletes are now doing to prevent and overcome their depression and apply it to our own lives.
One of the biggest acknowledgements when helping elite athletes with depression is to remember that they are human beings first, athletes second. This means that there is more focus on a life/sport balance for athletes. Basically, athletes are being taught how to switch off from their sport and training on a regular basis, meaning that sometimes training may be missed, some competitions may be forgotten, especially if a big life changing event outside of their sport is happening. Athletes are also receiving training for life after sport, training in job skills and qualifications, emotional support, life skills, etc. It is important to recognise that elite athletes’ lives are not normal, and that they have to learn how to live a normal life. These are support structures, however, that we can apply to most people in life - especially in schools, where pupils and students have had to face an intense period of education, to then be thrust into the grown-up world of work and “adulting.” Whilst in school, they should be taught the skills to find work, be given emotional and social support, and also be given permission to switch off from school on a regular basis, to enjoy things outside of education.
I managed to avoid major depression after my swimming career, but ultimately I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder about ten years later. I have strategies in place to deal with my anxiety, and these strategies have worked for me (some things work for some and not for others).
Elite athlete, teacher, student, none of us are immune to depression and anxiety, and this is why we need to have support on all levels of society, to prevent depression in the first place and support those suffering. This is why RWS is campaigning for a Mental Health Pupils Premium Fund for UK schools.