Maxine Frith: At last, we can be open about depression

An outpouring of sympathy has greeted the departure of Marcus Trescothick
Click to follow
The Independent Online

From the infamous Bodyline tour of 1932, when England's bowlers deliberately aimed at the opposing batsmen, to the former Australian captain Steve Waugh's policy of forcing the "mental disintegration" of the other side, cricket has proved itself to be one of sport's most psychologically tough games, particularly when it comes to the Ashes.

But the outpouring of sympathy that has greeted the sudden departure of England's opening batsman, Marcus Trescothick, from Australia on Tuesday because of a recurrence of his "stress-related illness" has come from both the southern and northern hemispheres - and shows the extent to which mental ill-health is no longer a taboo subject, even in the macho world of top-flight sport.

On the Sydney Morning Herald's website, readers were asked to "buck the tired, old stereotype" of the insensitive, politically incorrect Aussie and show their sorrow for Trescothick's plight; within 24 hours more than 100 messages of support had been posted. And as the Australian golf open got under way yesterday, one home-grown player, Steven Bodwitch, said he felt for the England cricketer, and revealed that he had suffered from depression for the past two years.

Meanwhile, Jeff Kennett, a former state premier who is now president of an Australian Football League club and chairs a charity for depression, said that the "enormous expectations" placed on top players often forced them to breaking point, and estimated that up to 15 per cent of all sportsmen suffered from some form of stress or depression.

From England too, there was nothing but immense sadness for the mental torture of Trescothick, despite the fact that his return from Australia just nine days before the Ashes may throw our chances of repeating last year's victory into doubt.

The focus among commentators and fans has been on empathy with the 31-year-old's self-confessed feelings of homesickness on tour, guilt about being away from his wife and young daughter, and the huge stress of having to be the first batsman to walk on to the field each time to play for his country.

Indeed, the only criticisms have been levelled at the England selectors for not perhaps understanding the mental vulnerability of one of their most valued players, and at the sport of cricket in general for instigating a demanding touring schedule that means many team members can be away from their homes and families for more than four months a year.

Compare this reaction with the ridicule that was heaped on the then England footballer Paul Gascoigne when he burst into tears after being booked during the 1990 World Cup, or the snickering and gawping that followed the then Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan's cracking up under the mind games of Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson in the 1996 Premiership competition.

More tragically, there is the example of George Best, who died last year at the age of 59. Best spoke frequently of how his alcoholism started when he moved from Northern Ireland to Manchester as a teenage footballer, and became desperately homesick and unhappy at his isolation in a strange city, away from everything and everyone he knew.

What a difference 40 years makes. While Best's problems were swept under the carpet, Marcus Trescothick's issues have been picked up, made public and understood. Finally, it seems, sport is losing its stiff upper lip and realising that it has a duty to look after the minds as well as the bodies of its players.

And it is not just sport but the wider world which has accepted stress, depression and other mental health issues as a serious epidemic that needs to be addressed. Half of all sickness-related work absence in Europe is now stress-related, and emotional problems cost the UK £2.4bn per year in lost productivity alone. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2010, stress and depression will affect 30 per cent of all adults, and that by 2020 the issue will be the second biggest cause of premature death and disability.

More than 70 years after the Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye first described the psychological and physical effects of stress on the body, backing up his ideas with experiments on animals, few now dispute the existence of such conditions. Anyone who has suffered from stress and depression - or knows someone who has - will know the catastrophic effect it can have on their lives.

Sylvia Plath wrote of the "bell jar" feeling when she descended into her own personal mental hell. In 1966 the Rolling Stones sang about how "Mother's Little Helper" - valium - was the secret resort for women who felt depressed; now people of both sexes are happy to talk openly about their Prozac or Seroxat prescriptions.

And if they don't want medication, they are likely to be offered cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) on the NHS - the Government's new best friend in the field of mental health therapy. Earlier this year a report by the Labour peer Lord Layard called for 10,000 new therapists to be trained in CBT by 2013.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have talked about the need for a "happiness agenda" that addresses the emotional as well as financial needs of the electorate. Pupils at the private Wellington College are even given happiness lessons in a bid to make them into emotionally rounded adults.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former spin doctor and arguably one of the toughest political operators of recent years, has spoken openly of his battle back to mental health following a breakdown, while the former Home Secretary David Blunkett chronicled his descent into depression in his recently-published diaries.

In showbusiness, too, depression and other problems are no longer glossed over with a little trip to a spa for "fatigue".The actor and writer Stephen Fry has garnered praise for his documentary on bi-polar disorder, from which he suffers, while the gardening guru Monty Don has frequently spoken about the paralysing bouts of depression that he has experienced.

This is all to the good, but far more still needs to be done. With the NHS grappling with a £600m deficit, budgets for mental health provision are being slashed. And lest we think that the reaction to Trescothick's problems will herald an end to "sledging" - the antipodean practice of mentally goading a batsman with insults about his wife, sister and anything else while he is on the pitch - the final word should perhaps be left to the former Australian bowler Jeff Thomson. He said yesterday that once Shane Warne starts bowling at the English team, "I'm sure the Pommies will all be going home with depression."