When news emerged of England cricketer (and top-order batsman) Jonathan Trott leaving the Ashes tour of Australia because of a “long-standing stress-related condition”, it seemed only too familiar a story.
Professional sportsmen (and women) battling depression or other mental health issues is not new to us. In fact the news about Trott produced strong echoes of Marcus Trescothick’s reasons for leaving the squad for the ICC Champions Trophy in 2006. Trescothick said at the time he was making himself unavailable because of a “sensitive medical condition.”
Other high profile casualties of the pressurised environment of professional sport include the former Liverpool and Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore and the Bath prop Duncan Bell. Tragically, in 2009, former Barcelona and Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke took his own life after struggling with depression.
But despite this, the sporting world still reflects back an attitude of surprise that someone, like Trott, so successful and pretty darn good at their profession, as well as well remunerated, should fall victim to something like this.
We all say “good luck, get better” but does the fact that stories like this dominate news and sport bulletins show that we do not understand it? That we can’t quite comprehend how someone we deem ‘successful’ struggles with mental health? If Trott had broken his ankle during practice, for example, would the story have moved beyond the sports pages to the main pages of newspapers?
Professional sportsmen and women (even rich professional sportsmen and women), are not infallible. It is assumed that footballers should be able to deal with abuse, booing, pressure and almost everything else because, after all, they are well-paid. As though that makes a difference.
An interesting question raised in today’s newspapers about Trott is whether sports professionals are more prone to mental health problems because of their environment, or whether like the rest of us they are just susceptible to them at any point in their lives.
The withdrawal of Trott gives us a chance to view sport as it should be viewed – in perspective. Such an event gets fellow professionals to admit that ‘it’s only a game’ and that there are more important issues at stake than national pride. Because to be frank, how we talk about professional sport often makes it sound as though our happiness is fully dependent on the result. We have hours of broadcast build-up to an important fixture, each tackle or over is poured over, and the way our moods fluctuate according to the result of our team that given day.
An understanding and appreciation that those in sport are not infallible is vital.
This same attitude – of believing certain individuals are protected from falling victim to mental health problems – also creeps into the Church.
We hear about church leaders who confess their struggles, and then we react with shock and surprise, before trying to comfort them that “we all get low sometimes.” As though that is a reasonable comparison.
When we hear news of someone’s struggle with a mental illness, we say: “He’s a Christian isn’t he?” Yes, he is, but surely we don’t think this makes him immune. “Have you had a good quiet time?” we ask, trying to be understanding but perhaps failing. Time with God and prayer is vital. But to react like having a quiet time, or praying more, will make the problem go away is disingenuous, and more importantly, suggests we only do such things to make us feel good.
We need only look to the Psalms to see that depression is not a new issue for the Church.
Footballers, six-foot seven inches tall rugby players, tennis players with a 137mph serve; none of them are immune from such problems. And neither is the church pastor, the elder or in fact, our own friends.
Let’s get real.
(Winston Churchill was said to have suffered from depression and he called it the ‘black dog’.)