It was Mental Health Awareness Week again last week. It is a mystery to me as to why it's not Mental Health Week every day of the year? And what do they mean by mental health anyway? How can you be mentally healthy in a world that's nuts? If you feel like you're a normal person, the chances are that you're not mentally healthy, you're delusional.
I did, however, go to an extraordinary event called 'Transforming Mind-Sets' a charity event sponsored by Grant Thornton for Mind and British Athletics. I was lucky enough to chair the panel, which included Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind; Jack Green, two-time Olympian sprint athlete; and Dr Hannah MacLeod, Olympic gold winning hockey player. How fantastic to be able to ask athletes (because I know none) how they deal with depression while doing a sport when I can't even lift a finger when I'm ill. Jack Green was so tall I never actually saw his face but the view from the neck down was pretty good. He was ranked top ten of the UK's best hurdlers when he was a teenager and since then he relentlessly trains seven days a week, always goes to bed before 10:00pm and beats himself up when he doesn't top his last record. I asked him what the difference was between torture and training? His answer was 'Nothing.' Training is always agonizing but he keeps going because he needs to win, to the point of obsession.
I find it mind-boggling that he devotes his life to training for an event that takes minutes. When he did win the gold at the Rio Olympics, he didn't give himself a pat on the back or feel much joy; all he could think about was training to win again. When he came fourth in the London Olympics in 2012, he suddenly found himself unable to perform, let alone leave his house. He was helpless and had to take the next 18 months off, not realising he had clinical depression. He couldn't tell his mother how he felt because he was her caretaker or his coach who he thought probably didn't want to know. He ended up living alone in Florida (he moved thinking that would help) feeling that he had lost his mind, which he had - he was suicidal. To try and rouse himself he went for a competition in Dubai, got there and immediately knew he was too ill to compete, so when he tripped over one of the hurdles, he claimed to be physically injured as an excuse. If you lose a race, the sponsors reduce your fee and probably if they discovered you have a mental illness would retract it entirely.
Now, miraculously, Jack is training again even though a few years ago he broke his back. I suppose that compared to the depression, a spinal injury felt like no big deal. He's like Superman but with depression, which to me, means he's a God but vulnerable.
The other panellist was Hannah MacLeod, a gold Olympic winner who also trained since she was a child. In her case, she didn't realise she had bipolar though she thinks that was probably what gave her the obsessive drive. The problem is that when you lose a few games, the floor drops out, the sense of invincibility goes and you're left with a crippling depression. When her team won the 2010 Rio Olympics she described the mind zapping ecstasy of knowing you're the best but at the same time you're worrying about next time. In 2012 at the London games, the team won a bronze. They'd been telling the press they were expecting a gold so when it was bronze it was a public humiliation. Many of them couldn't deal with it because they weren't supported psychologically at that time to deal with failure. Also, there's the pressure that whether they win or lose each game determines if they're going to be sponsored next time or not. That means all that training can come to nothing.
These days the hockey team is trained mentally as well as physically because it's a team sport and now they know if one of them goes down, they all do. Finally, during a match Hannah fell and her whole body went into spasm. She was unable to move. When they told her she couldn't play again she only felt relief; finally she could stop. Sometime afterwards, she said, she remembers laughing and realizing she hadn't done it for years. Now she gives advice to businesses on how to stay resilient under pressure.
Paul Farmer, chief executive at Mind, said that since the beginning of his tenure at Mind, stigma and discrimination has decreased 9.6%. Without charities such as Mind, Time to Change, Sane etc. this probably wouldn't have happened. The battle still goes on for more drug and brain research, training GPs to deal with mental illness, less waiting time, access to therapists and the never-ending fight to ensure that if your employer finds out you have mental illness, you won't be dismissed or ostracized, which is the threat we all live under.
Here's hoping that Mental Health Week turns into Mental Health Century.
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