Why are com­pet­i­tive ath­letes more open to de­pres­sion?

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian o’rior­dan

Back on the New York Times best­seller list a decade af­ter first pub­lished – thanks mainly to the film tie-in edi­tion – is David Sh­eff’s Beau­ti­ful Boy, one of those prop­erly eye-open­ing ac­counts of ad­dic­tion, re­cov­ery and ev­ery­thing else in be­tween.

Set against a golden Cal­i­for­nian tinge, Sh­eff is painfully hon­est about his son Nic’s sud­den de­scent into one of the worst of all ad­dic­tions, crys­tal meth. The once joy­ous and boom­ing stu­dent and ath­lete be­comes a tan­gle of lies and de­ceit, and in Beau­ti­ful Boy, Sh­eff tries hard to un­ravel it all. Is it some­thing in their lives, or some pre-ex­ist­ing fac­tor, which trig­gers it? Could he have done any­thing dif­fer­ent to pre­vent it?

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily end hap­pily, only what fa­ther and son and ev­ery­one else in­volved agree is that the shar­ing of the story, the telling of the truth, helps ease some of the pain and ul­ti­mately brings about some heal­ing. The film looks good too, by the way.

Ad­dic­tion is a dif­fer­ent sub­ject to mental health, but there are sim­i­lar­i­ties nonethe­less, in terms of the heal­ing, and in un­der­stand­ing part of the trig­ger­ing process. Or in the case of Tyson Fury try­ing to un­der­stand which came first – the ad­dic­tion or the de­pres­sion.

What is cer­tain is that hon­esty – and brav­ery – al­ways makes it eas­ier, the lat­est ex­am­ple of which came from Kevin Dooney, who is lead­ing the Ir­ish se­nior men’s team in Sun­day’s Euro­pean Cross Coun­try in Til­burg. Just six months ago Dooney re­vealed his four-year strug­gle with his mental health, and while con­scious of not be­com­ing “an­other ath­lete who goes out there and com­plains” about it, there could be no more hid­ing ei­ther.

It be­gan with a blog for the Fast Run­ning web­site, un­der the head­line ‘If I spark one con­ver­sa­tion it was worth shar­ing’: six months and sev­eral can­did in­ter­views later, Dooney is clearly in a bet­ter place, his pow­er­ful per­for­mance in win­ning the Na­tional Cross Coun­try last Sun­day week some re­flec­tion of that.

That his de­scent came at a cer­tain peak, run­ning and study­ing at Yale Univer­sity, doesn’t help in the un­rav­el­ling of it: “There is no set date or mo­ment when I would say I be­gan feel­ing this way,” he wrote, “more of a grad­ual slide into more fre­quent oc­cur­rences of feel­ing down with­out any ex­pla­na­tion as to why. Hid­ing my mental health is­sues has def­i­nitely done me no favours over the past years other than per­haps pro­tect­ing some form of ego I felt needed to be guarded.”

Not alone

Of course Dooney is not alone, not even in the small cir­cle of elite Ir­ish ath­letes. The last time the Euro­pean Cross Coun­try was staged in Til­burg, in 2005, Linda Byrne fin­ished a ter­rific fourth in the junior women’s race – just six sec­onds off bronze. Byrne made steady progress into the se­nior ra nks, cul­mi­nat­ing with the Olympic marathon in Lon­don 2012, where she was the lead­ing Ir­ish fin­isher, her 2:37:13 not far out­side her best. Four months later she was part of the Ir­ish women’s team that won gold at the 2012 Euro­pean Cross Coun­try in Bu­dapest, fin­ish­ing eighth over­all.

But by 2013 Byrne had run her­self to a stand­still, open­ing up about her mental health in an in­ter­view with The Ir­ish Times, two years ago: “I just hit a wall,” she said. “I think I was still com­ing down from all the hype of Lon­don, and then it just hit me, I went into a new low, and I found it very hard to get out of it. I started hav­ing very bad panic at­tacks as well, but didn’t un­der­stand why.”

Part of the even­tual un­der­stand­ing was the shar­ing her story too.

David Gil­lick’s re­cent ac­counts of his grad­ual de­cent into de­pres­sion were hon­est and eye-open­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the telling of where he is now. Gil­lick’s Ir­ish 400m record of 44.77 is one of the best in the books, and “I’d love to say ev­ery­thing is per­fect now,” he wrote. “But the war with mental ill­ness is never truly over – all you can do is stay on top of the bat­tles. It’s an on­go­ing thing, and I know I’ll be man­ag­ing my mental health un­til the day I die. But I’m do­ing much bet­ter . . . climbed out of that pit of de­spair, and this wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble if I didn’t open up, seek help and learn the strate­gies to cope.”

Same with Martin Fa­gan, who opened up – to some de­spair­ing re­ac­tion – about his de­pres­sion in 2012, af­ter test­ing pos­i­tive for EPO, at which point he was in­ject­ing him­self at his small apart­ment in Ari­zona in such grim cir­cum­stances that he felt the low of the meth ad­dict. To some, Fa­gan was still a tan­gle of lies; to oth­ers, his open­ness went some way to­wards un­der­stand­ing what may have trig­gered it all.

De­pres­sion, like ad­dic­tion, is of­ten rep­e­ti­tious. A decade af­ter Fa­gan ran the Olympic marathon in Bei­jing, are we any more aware why com­pet­i­tive ath­letes seem more open to de­pres­sion?

The shar­ing of the story cer­tainly helps.

the shar­ing of the story, the telling of the truth, helps ease some of the pain

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