Depression takes a cruel toll
May 7, 2012
Bath's Duncan Bell recently revealed that he has battled depression for a decade © Getty Images
This final weekend of the regular season in the Aviva Premiership has quickly become a highlight for us at ESPN. The excitement and anticipation built steadily during a hectic week as the production crew prepared for our game at Adams Park. Every potential angle had to be covered, every possible permutation accounted for. And while Wasps and Newcastle fought for their futures in front of us, camera feeds from around the country brought instant tales of joy and despair for everyone else, etched in close-up.
However, as television captured the day's successes and failures, hiding just behind the HD-quality pictures was a much more sobering story. As rewards for success grow, the price of expectation and failure rise alongside, with occasionally debilitating consequences. Stress and depression have become two of this season's emerging and most pressing themes, while the work being put in to counter them has become that much more important.
The players' union, the Rugby Players' Association, calculate more than 130 of their members in the Premiership have contracts that are about to expire. The number might be slightly higher than usual, as squads are trimmed after taking on extra players during the Rugby World Cup, but it remains a stark one. Those most at risk are so-called "mid-range" players, those earning average salaries at their clubs. If you're a winger or a back rower you are even more vulnerable.
Statistics suggest they are the most likely positions to be filled by younger, cheaper academy players. Mix together concerns about how mortgages might be paid, a record list of careers cut short by injury this year and assorted personal problems, then it becomes easier to understand why one in four professional rugby players, shadowing the national average, is likely to experience some kind of mental health problem this year.
Studies now suggest stress levels in the sport are reaching peaks once the sole preserve of football. More and more of the stars we watch and enjoy on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon are, or are in danger of becoming, clinically depressed. To make matters worse, most feel they can't tell anyone.
Bath's Duncan Bell was one of those, until he chose to mark the end of a long and distinguished career by standing up in front of his team-mates at Farleigh House to reveal he'd suffered from depression for more than a decade. His emotional moment of confession to those he'd kept his secret from for so long now forms the centre-piece of a DVD about depression that will be shown to every player in the Premiership. It has been produced by the RPA, backing up work they have been carrying out for a number of years supporting professionals with similar problems and warning of the dangers.
The only player Bell felt able to confide in during his darkest moments was his best friend in the team, fellow prop David Flatman. "The first thing I felt was sympathy, the second was guilt for not having helped earlier," says Flatman on the DVD. But being a professional rugby player, with all the perks and benefits that are supposed to come with the job, make it harder to open up. "The public perception is, 'what have we got to be depressed about?' People think we're lucky and in many ways we are. But if we have a bad day at work we're hammered for it, humiliated. That makes it a very difficult environment to say something."
The RPA is now busy, with the help of Bell, educating its members not just on the causes of stress and depression but also the symptoms. In sessions up and down the country they will ask players to look for tell-tale signs. Have they become more cynical, critical and sarcastic at the training ground? Are they more irritable with others? Is motivation a problem? Are they disillusioned, sleeping poorly, over-eating, over-drinking, taking drugs or even contemplating suicide? All are potential clues to a bigger issue.
A mental health organisation called LPP Consulting provides a confidential service which is available to every RPA member who wants to talk. LPP accept there is a stigma - a wall of silence - surrounding the issue not just across sport, but across life. Through funding from the RPA Benevolent Fund, the experts help players realise looking for help isn't a sign of weakness.
Injuries are the major source of depression, followed not far behind by performance. The game is scrutinised in greater depth than ever by coaches, the media and supporters. Key performance targets are regularly re-set and re-assessed. All of which, Flatman observes, add to increasing levels of stress. "We are all macho alpha-males who want to be dominant, to be chestbeaters. To have that stripped away and abused publicly is brutal. When it's happened a hundred times you either take the hint and move on, you become immune or you become depressed."
It is right that on this weekend of all weekends to celebrate the achievements of those whose hard work over the course of the season has brought them to the brink of success. But thanks to players like Bell and the diligence of those who run the game like the RPA, the sometimes enormous impact of failure is no longer one that has to be felt alone.
ESPN will be providing live coverage of the Aviva Premiership semi-final between Leicester Tigers and Saracens on Saturday, May 12 and the final on Saturday, May 26.
This article first appeared in the Rugby Paper on May 6, visit www.therugbypaper.co.uk
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Nick Mullins is lead commentator for live Aviva Premiership Rugby on ESPN