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Over to us – the responsibility of the modern athlete in dealing with mental health in sport

It’s been over three months since Dan Vickerman took his own life on the evening of February 18th 2017. Perhaps like many in the rugby community who were affected by the loss of the ex-Wallaby, Varsity hero for Cambridge University, burgeoning property entrepreneur, loving husband and father to two sons, I wondered how this could have happened.

The suicide of a high profile athlete unable to adapt to life after the addictive spotlight of international sport is becoming more of a familiar storyline. Many involved in some level of competition will probably know of an individual, whether they’re renowned throughout the game or an amateur at grassroots level, who has been affected by mental health issues. For those unfamiliar with Dan Vickerman, the incomprehensibility of his death lies not only in the fact that he, unlike many other professional sportspeople, had planned for his departure from the game by taking time out of his rugby to study and prepare for a future career, but that he had also, unlike many other professional sportspeople, spoken to colleagues about the difficulties he felt in carrying out that transition.

The sense of injustice that someone so concious of his own condition could still succumb to it led to a demand for answers: what could be changed to help those in sport suffering from mental health issues?

On the Monday after the world heard about Dan, Australian TV presenter Paul Murray spoke on his Sky News Program about the need for the media to tell the ‘full story’ of high profile suicides.

Murray addressed the “well-held theory in the Australian Media” that says you “don’t talk about the cause of death if it is suicide, because there might be some sort of copycat situation that takes place.”  Murray called for more media transparency in the light of Vickerman: “Tell the full story, so we can all be reminded of how important it is to reach out to someone.”

This all seemed to make perfect sense (as thousands of other FB commenters also attested to).  Surely these were the right questions that Murray was asking; why wasn’t the media doing more to break the stigma?

As I searched for answers, more information and research began to appear that supported the very real dangers of copycat suicides, and that Murray had drawn conclusions based on the initial reports that there were no suspicious circumstances related to Dan’s death. But the simple fact is that until a cause of death is officially released, the media cannot report on it, and the risk of getting it wrong on only a hunch should take priority over getting the full story out there.

An insightful article by Clare Stephens highlights how suicide contagion is a very real phenomena; she cites figures from Mindframe, the organization in charge of the national media guidelines for reporting sucides, suggesting that media details of method and location have been linked to increased rates of suicide using that method and at that location.

Ms. Stephens concludes the article by stating that “The answers don’t lie in the detail,” and that “the danger to vulnerable people is far more important than our desire to understand exactly what happened.”

But even if the details of Dan Vickerman’s death could do nothing to help prevent other incidents (and indeed could easily lead to more of them), I then began to ask whether the media could broaden their coverage and awareness of suicide as a more general problem in sport in an attempt to help normalize discussions of mental health. Why hadn’t I heard about more cases in other sports since February 18th? Perhaps the media was only concerned with big names instead of sustaining an interest at all levels of the game? Even if talking through his issues had not helped Dan Vickerman, I was still convinced that a discussion about dealing with mental health and seeking help was the way forward, and that the media had a big part to play in this.

It’s hard to say just how concerned the media is with bringing mental health issues in sport to the public’s attention, but the recent coverage of Frantisek Rajtoral suggests they do take the discussion seriously and will not neglect a suicide just because it may not resonate with a mainstream readership.  The Guardian’s article in particular, drawing attention to the suicide of an obscure 31 year old, Czech international (playing for the equally obscure Gaziantepspor FC) deserves praise when it could easily have been skipped in favor of another story.  The article took a particular interest in the views of the chief medical officer of international players’ union, who warned that a lot more needed to be done to combat mental illness among current professionals. Yet the article also had an informative focus on the initiatives being carried out by FifPro to try and prevent further cases, and outlined the surveys being carried out to explore the extent of mental health problems in the sport.

Franktisek Rajtoral. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Franktisek Rajtoral. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The article on Frantisek Rajtoral seemed to dissect perfectly the balance between generating the potential for an informed, open discussion without, as Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg warns, “romanticizing, glamorizing, sanitizing or normalizing” suicide. Ibrahim Kizil, president of Gaziantepspor, sensibly refused to indulge over the how’s and why’s of the incident, admitting “I really don’t know why he did such a thing.”  Obsessing over why someone took their own life won’t prevent future cases, but broadcasting responsible facts about deaths related to mental health, wherever and whenever they occur, will.

But if the media appears to be receptive to discussing the problem in a responsible manner, and is covering cases of sporting bodies carrying out initiatives and research into the problem on a global scale, then perhaps it was sportspeople themselves who were shirking the platform that was ready and waiting for them to broadcast from? why haven’t more senior spokespeople come forward to help combat the stigma?

Again there’s to be no straightforward answer to the role that top sportspeople play in combating the stigma, but again, the evidence suggests they are doing their bit. The day after the news of Dan Vickerman broke, the Rugby Players’ Association took stock of their own attitude to mental health and launched the Lift The Weight campaign. The campaign is aimed to connect with members of the RPA by sharing the stories and experiences of team-mates and peers in order to create a greater understanding of mental health issues within the sport.

A previous RPA campaign involving Duncan Bell saw an increase of 131 per cent in the number of players contacting the body’s confidential counselling service with Cognacity; with 2016 seeing a record number of players use the service. With the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and James Haskell speaking candidly about their struggles with anxiety and depression, Rugby Union is utilizing some of the biggest names in the game in a campaign which they hope will resonate with players at all levels of competition.

Although there can always be improvements, the truth we have to digest is that, despite all the measures that the media takes to prevent copy-cat instances; despite their positive approach to reporting stories of suicide in a bid to promote discussion; despite measures that sporting bodies take to combat the problem; and despite senior sportspeople coming out and speaking publically about their own mental health; we still have a major problem.

I’m not saying that the media or sporting bodies or top athletes are perfect in their attitudes to mental health, but I think Clarke Carlisle’s recent insightful article on Aaron Lennon highlights how the modern athlete can utilise the help on offer. He spoke about his own battle with depression: “when I was going through my situation, I knew what support mechanisms were out there but I was so poorly that I was totally introverted.” After Clarke found the strength to open up and engage with the services on offer, he praised the PFA for their outstanding work and the help they provided.

We are, by and large, living within a society that cares about our mental health and is equipped to help us if and when we struggle. Although we should never stop interrogating the system in order to improve it, we need to be more proactive in interrogating each other. Because after everything has been discussed, promoted and encouraged to fight mental health problems, we’re the ones who are in direct contact with sportspeople. We’re the ones who can make the biggest, most immediate difference to someone’s potential suffering by encouraging those around us to talk. We’re the ones in the changing room who could notice a teammate going quiet over recent weeks or sneaking away from social events. We are, also, the ones who are exposed to the same struggles and risks, and are too often sitting in silence.