A number of media outlets today reported the imminent retirement of Bath Rugby’s Duncan Bell. And all of the reports hinge on the surprise announcement of his long term battle with depression. I must admit that I came across the story whilst channel flicking, a bad habit of mine which annoys many though which was beneficial tonight. I spotted the story on Sky Sports News and I’m almost ashamed to admit that my first reaction was almost to roll my eyes – another sportsman comes out as a depressive. In recent months there has been an increasing list of sports stars who have revealed their battles with depression: Johnny Wilkinson, Dean Windass and Freddie Flintoff have all talked about their own battles. Although their stories are familiar to me and others who have dealt with these issues, there is a part of me which dreads another “Sportsman tells of depression” story because it is starting to become a fashion, a trend and an excuse. Yet the report I saw on Bell was different. It was human. It was personal. Whilst the written reports have focussed on his private battle, the fact that his employers were unaware of his illness and the courage of his speaking out, the clip I saw (and unfortunately am unable to link to here) showed something a lot more. Bell described his decision to tell his team mates, his visible fear in the dressing room before doing so, the dread of not knowing the reactions of his team mates. He stood up, talked for five or six minutes and having listened was relieved by his teammates’ support. Again, nothing new. But what was different was his description of what was to come: he recognises depression as an illness, he is not on medication, he recognises the signs of it coming on and understands the need to concentrate on these and act if he is to stay medication free. But most importantly he knows that with retirement ahead, with the loss of routine and the rugby “family”, with the pressures of starting his own business that he is vulnerable to his depression coming back. Whilst others have opened up about their illness in the past, there have been few honest accounts of what it is like living with this everyday, here and now. Duncan should be commended on this honesty and let’ hope he keeps on top of this battle with whatever challenges lie ahead.
In the last week two things have happened which made me think.
The first was a receiving a text from a friend. She told me that a work colleague was suffering from work stress and was about to be signed off. She was concerned and didn’t know how to approach the friend so asked me for advice having been in a similar situation. I told her that when I was suffering from the same it was the impromptu contact by friends that got me. I suggested dropping her friend a text just to say hello and to let him know she was there if he wanted to talk.
The second was finding out that another friend was recovering (successfully so far) from surgery for bowel cancer. I was shocked – I thought he’s had dental problem but this news explained a lot. He seemed upbeat but knowing what it was like recovering from illness offered. In doing so he responded: “One of the many positives about cancer is the HUGE impromptu support network that springs up around you.”
And so these 2 separate events combined in my head. They both made me think of what I had been through. The initial feeling of being totally alone when I was facing up to my problems followed by the development of a growing support network. Much of this was based on friends but not always the friends you though it would come from and one of the outcomes to be prepared for in this is the loss of some friends. Yes, some people you thought were close turn out not to be so, to disappear in the time of need never to reappear. I have to make a distinction here too. I am not referring to those friends who find it difficult to react but who find ways to communicate, The “friends” you lose are those who disappear completely and never make contact. In my experience I didn’t lose a lot though.
It is fair to say that everyone finds it difficult at times knowing just how to react. And an immediate reaction isn’t always the best, nor is it needed or wanted. But over a longer period of time there are many ways that support is offered. It starts with the small things – receiving a text, an email message or a phone call based around another issue but with a “how are you” dropped in are the small things that mean a lot. At a mechanical level it opens a channel of communication between you and them – and today there are so many ways to communicate, don’t shun the obvious. On a more psychological level it shows that they/you are not alone, that others have gone through similar and equally that there are others out there to share your problems with. And never forget that it can be an important distraction. I always start with seeing if someone wants a coffee as from my experience it a) got me out of the house, b) gave me a focus on something I like and c) created a space where you could talk about whatever you wanted, problem, distraction or both.
The support I received was invaluable and I hope that the people who are part of that network have felt valued. If you are the one suffering know that there are people out there who can help but you have to let them know – nobody can really read minds that well. And if you know someone who is going through the mill, reach out in a small way – it’s a bit like the acorn and the oak both the small start and the strong branches.
I won’t ramble for long today, there’s other things to focus on at the moment. However I am indebted to each of you who, in whatever small way, provided feedback and support after I posed those dilemmas and questions. Each has been intuitive, interesting and informative and given me plenty to think about as well as providing a much needed boost. To those who have gone a step further in offering solace, a coffee and even beer I am extremely grateful and do not be surprised when (not if) I take up that offer.
So just to keep you all up to date, in those last two weeks I’ve taken one foot off the gas and put one eye on the future. Having said I was feeling like Fernando Torres in lacking goals, I have not only discovered what my options are with the help of a life coach but exceeded the misfiring Chelsea striker in securing two goals of my own. I’d say that was enough progress to end the week happy (the voice on my shoulder disagrees but I’m drowning him out with some music). More thoughts to follow as and when I get my head around them again.
This morning I spotted a tweet praising this article in the Daily Mail. Whilst it makes some interesting points about the gruesome nature of suicide, its main point is that suicides of famous people act as a spur for others to do the same and, in doing so, they join a group of essentially selfish people. And in making this case it employs academic studies (somewhat ironically for the Daily Mail) which are as far removed from the actual feelings of those involved as they can be. Speaking from the perspective as a trained researcher and academic, these studies are unlikely to tap into real emotions felt by people. In their search for generalisable conclusions they miss the unique nature of each individuals case. More so, research subjects rarely speak that openly and honestly about the non-personal issues which affect their lives, let alone emotions so provide only partial insight of the veneer. We say what we think others want to hear. And perhaps these fuel the behaviours they claim to dissect and understand.
I actually feel insulted by this article. As someone who once had these feelings, I can say with all honesty that I was not inspired by anybody else. I felt selfish in having these thoughts and about the consequences of that course of action. Martin Samuel would do well to refocus on his opening paragraph and in particular these lines:
More worrying are those that have not; those nobody knows about, that are alone in tackling depression, or addiction, or feelings of helplessness. The section of the community who see Speed’s end not as tragedy, but grim inspiration.
We know from a range of real, anecdotal evidence that this exists yet we perpetuate in creating environments in which these feelings are incubated and grow. His article is unlikely to inspire many of them to speak out and discuss their thoughts, fears and psychological demons. Whilst Gary Speed’s death is still to raw to analyse with any objectivity the other cases that Samuel highlights surely indicate to the academic and layman alike that there is a trend here which needs to be better understood if the root causes are to be addresses and the deaths prevented. I would expect more from the Sports Journalist of the Year if journalism isn’t being proved to be so toxic itself. I’m sure there’s an academic paper in that but for the time being read it for yourself and make up your own mind.