09/05/2017 07:41 BST | Updated 09/05/2017 07:41 BST

Mental Health Awareness Week: Revisiting Depression In Cricket


In 2012, Leicestershire batsman Matt Boyce walked from John O'Groats to Lands End for the mental health charity MIND. He was inspired to raise money for them by the prevalence of mental illness amongst his fellow cricketers. I thought it was worth revisiting this piece, written after joining Matt on part of this walk.

The black dog in cricket

It's a shocking fact that twice as many women suffer from depression than men, but males are three times more likely to commit suicide as a result of their condition. So what is it about the fairer sex that apparently gives them the ability to deal with their depression? And why does the 'black dog' seem to be such a frequent companion of professional cricketers?

Remember the old BT advertising campaign 'It's good to talk': Bob Hoskins inviting you to pick up the phone and chat to your loved ones? It would seem those four little words could give us a clue as to why men are less capable of coping with the dark blanket of depression that smothers one in five of us at some point in our lives.

Transactional Analyst Psychotherapist Michael Fairclough explains why a problem shared can become a problem halved. "What I get from my patients is a sense of relief at just being able to talk to someone," says Fairclough, "a feeling that they are not alone in what they are going through. In the process of talking they then begin to realise that things are not as bad as they make them out to be in their own mind."

Without wishing to revert to stereotype, women are more inclined to talk to their friends, and about more personal subjects, either alleviating the isolation of depression itself, or aiding their understanding that they need to seek professional help. Either way, voicing their emotions and perceived weaknesses seems persistently more common in the female of the species. The assumption that men are tough can result in their depression getting overlooked. So can that account for the startling disparity in the male/female suicide rates triggered by depression?

"Women are often more willing to talk about their issues," Fairclough suggests. "Because of the nature of men, part of their journey is connecting their hearts to their heads and being able to express their feelings. A lot of men bottle things up and ultimately get into despair, and that's why they commit suicide."

Tim Ambrose, current Warwickshire and ex-England wicket-keeper, whose struggle with depression became public in 2012, agrees. "It's not all that surprising that the suicide rate in young men in particular is high," recognises Ambrose. "We don't have those kinds of conversation that women do. It's not easy to find someone to talk to about having troubles. We don't often tell our mates that we're struggling with things; we suffer in silence."

I spoke to one young male, not a cricketer, who wished to be known just as "Joe". He suffered with depression for several years before finally asking for help.

"I got to a point where I realised that I had to speak with someone," he said. "It wasn't just me that was affected any more, it was also my family and friends. Talking to someone was a big relief, once I had taken the plunge it was all a lot easier from there."

Taking that first step and seeking help can be a major issue for many men, not least because of the stigma sadly still attached to mental illness.

"I was concerned about people judging me if I told them how I was feeling," Joe confessed. "In the end I only told people that were close to me, and therefore I didn't mind them knowing so much."

Aside from the fear of judgment if you 'come out' to others, it doesn't help that, at your lowest, seeing or talking to anyone else is the last thing you might want to do, paralysed by the fear of others judging you as much as you are internally judging yourself.

Maintaining an outward appearance of the status quo can be an exhausting and full time occupation when in the presence of others. Walking the tight rope of your mental illness, trying to just stay balanced without plunging off into total despair, doesn't allow much room for considering others. It becomes an all consuming, self-obsessed disease, paradoxically making the tormented want to think of anything but themselves. It can become impossible to see your thoughts as just that: thoughts, and not 'facts', as they present themselves to be.

Whilst these symptoms of depression are by no means exclusive to men, being less likely to open up instantly puts them on the back foot, says Ambrose.

"You don't want to show weakness or be seen to have problems," he said. You have to try and be strong, and it stops being as easy to just push away and it becomes a bigger issue than perhaps it would have been."

Ambrose willingly admits that his way of "pushing away" his problems was cricket. "Cricket was my outlet, I focussed hard on it," he concedes. "It helped me to make it quite easy to push it to the back of my mind. You're taught from very early on to not to show any weaknesses, so it's second nature to push those things away. I think we are all very susceptible to depression, but cricket was available to help me cover it up."

Joe readily agrees with Ambrose on this point. "I'd known for several years before I finally asked for help that I probably should," he said. "But before that it was actually easier to try and ignore it, and not think about things."

Whilst young men from all walks of life suffer with depression, it's not hard to see how the pressures of professional sport can exacerbate the symptoms and triggers of the illness. Long spells away from home, being in the spotlight - under media scrutiny and the critical eye of the fan - as well as the nature of the changing room - all takes its toll.

Within cricket, you are part of a team, which naturally makes it harder to speak up, facing the wrath or ridicule of all of your teammates. On the flip side, when you are ousted from the professional game, more often by the dictations of age than through personal choice, that loss of camaraderie proves yet another trigger of depression. Cricket. It gets you when you're in it, and gets you when you leave it.

"The culture in cricket is one of 'bonhomie', friendliness, blokishness," Fairclough suggests. "This culture will accentuate any negative feelings that a cricketer might have.

"I remember John Arlott saying he had "never met a bad man in cricket". If an individual is having doubts about his game, he will compare himself to the 'norm' - the culture - and may find himself lacking, then get angry with himself for feeling low and depression will quickly follow. I have always thought the mind is the decider in sport. This can be both positive and negative, and the shadow side of that is depression.

"Sportsmen have reached the zenith of their career by turning professional. When you get there and you experience difficulty and become depressed you begin to think that you're a failure. Cricket is played over a long period of time, if you are out in the field and having depressing, negative thoughts, time will only magnify those feelings. You start thinking "I'm not as good as the person fielding next to me," and "I'm never going to make it; I'm never going to succeed," even though you've succeeded already by turning professional."

It was judgements of that very nature that possessed Ambrose throughout the 2010 season. "Negative thoughts would start to play on my mind," he admits. "And not knowing how to deal with them would lead me into a cycle of thought patterns that eventually sent me to a very dark place that is really hard to get out of."

It's astonishing to understand how Ambrose functioned at all during his darkest days. "At my worst, I had a spell of four months where I would be lucky to get an hour or two's sleep at night;" Ambrose said. "I'd go two or three days without sleeping or eating. Everything just seemed a step too far to be able to do.

"After a month or so of just being in a zombie state getting through life day to day without really trying to focus or do anything, just surviving, I remember thinking to myself; tomorrow is going to be different. I'm going to shrug this off and get on with it and be myself. I must have said that to myself every day for three weeks.

"I remember going to work, or I might not even make it to work, and something would happen and I'd just drop straight back through, like a trap door, to where I was. One tiny little thing would set it off and I'd be back to square one. So after a while I started to realise it's not the kind of thing where I could just give myself a slap and say "sort it out". You can't just shrug it off when you let it go that far.

"I think that's why the awareness is important, and being able to address it early on. Otherwise you can end up in a place where it does take time and a lot of sacrifices to get yourself back on track."

So when the dark mantle of depression envelopes someone we encounter every day, how does it go unnoticed?

"My team mates weren't nosey enough to ask me any questions," states Ambrose. "They just wanted me to be back to myself, so it was really up to me. I assumed everyone had put two and two together, so I was surprised to find out that people didn't know. It's something that we can all overlook, we don't know much about it or we don't pay much attention. I don't think it would hurt anyone to be a bit more aware of it."

Awareness appears to be a crucial factor in fighting depression. Marcus Trescothick bravely kicked off an epidemic of professional cricketers 'coming out' as having suffered from depression. Not only has this made it easier for others to speak up with their experiences, but it has also led to steps being taken to educate those within the world of cricket on the symptoms and dangers of depression.

The Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA) launched a series of tutorials in 2012 - 'Mind Matters' - that are compulsory viewing for all professional cricketers. One of the short videos, entitled 'Anxiety and Depression', features Ambrose - along with fellow depression sufferer Michael Yardy from Sussex County Cricket Club - talking about the symptoms to look out for, and how and where to get help.

"I feel strongly about education," said Ambrose. "When I went through it, there was a real lack of understanding from the lads, and that's not all their fault; it's an absence of knowledge. I've been surprised by how many people have spoken to me or others and said they think they've suffered with those sorts of things as well.

"The PCA do a fantastic job. They do a lot of presentations including a big one at the start of the year where they run through everything: things like drug awareness and match fixing issues. Last year I pointed out to Jason Ratcliffe [Assistant Chief Executive at the PCA] that there's one topic that's not touched on that I think is more relevant to us than some of the others, and it's something that we need more education on. He told me they were already working on something and asked me to get involved. I thought, if could help people then I'd be quite selfish not to get involved, so I signed up."

The combined edification of the cricketers' revelations and the PCA tutorials appear to be having the desired impact on fellow cricketers. Leicestershire batsman Matt Boyce was so moved by the apparent widespread problem of depression in cricketers, as well as the wider community, that he decided to take positive action to bring the issue to greater attention. In September 2012 he set off on a 66-day walk from John O'Groats to Lands End. His aim was to raise money for MIND, a mental health charity. I asked him what motivated him to take action.

"I've never suffered from mental illness myself," said Boyce, "but at the time I was thinking of doing this Gary Speed's suicide was in the media, there was a television programme about it by Andrew Flintoff, and something by Michael Vaughan on BBC 5live, so it was quite a prominent issue.

"You don't think about it yourself because you don't suffer but I've become more and more aware of guys who are suffering around me who probably wouldn't come forward because of what their friends, family and colleagues might think. So I was trying to make a statement that there is some support out there. I can't necessarily understand depression, but I can accept it, and accept that it's not a weakness.

"Cricket clubs and counties can be quite unforgiving environments in terms of lads' banter. It's all good fun, and when you're around your mates like that you wouldn't necessarily pick up on someone who's in trouble.

"It needs to be accepted rather than understood. If someone goes and speaks to a welfare officer and admits they're struggling then you treat them exactly the same.

So it seems the cricket world might be leading the way in terms of educating its members on depression, and banishing the stigma to help those who think they might have a problem to speak out.

"There is absolutely no shame in asking for help," Ambrose stresses. "If you feel that there is an issue, that something's not right, something's really making you anxious or bothering you or you just don't feel yourself then just make a call, no ones going to laugh at you.

"There's no problem too small because it's your life. There's no wasted phone call with this sort of thing. If it's something that bothers you then you need to talk about. Don't be afraid to make that first step.

"I battled on and tried to fight my way through it for a long time, but it was only when I actually sat down and said "I've got something I need to fix because it's not going to go away" that I started to realise a lot about it and started to get better."

It's a sentiment echoed by Joe. "Talking to someone helped me realise what it was that was actually bothering me," he said. "I blamed myself for certain things that were either not my fault, or that I was only partly to blame for. It also helped me to understand that I had quite low self-esteem, and that I shouldn't be so hard on myself."

A sufferer rarely leaves depression behind. Like all things of any significance in life it shapes you, makes you the person you become, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

"I feel I'm the best person I've ever been," Ambrose told me. "I've got here through the last couple of years of working through it, getting the right help, speaking to the right people and learning about it."

Depression can leave scars, mostly mental, sometimes physical. And of course there is always the risk of re-occurrence, although armed with the knowledge of your own triggers and symptoms, it can prove easier to manage.

"It [depression] is something you've got to keep working on and keep an eye on," concedes Ambrose. "But the more you understand it the more you'll recognise it within yourself and the easier it will be to deal with dips in form, because that's kind of how it is."

It's hard to help the lucky folk who have never suffered with a mental illness to comprehend it. Physical ailments, or tangible injuries that have a name, and come with a bandage or crutch to endorse them, can extract the empathy from others that is often sadly lacking with an illness of the mind. Understandably then, education on the subject of depression and creating the right environment for sufferers to speak up are vital.

It seems Bob was right after all. It is good to talk.