How sport is tackling the taboo surrounding mental health

By Rich Jones

They spend their lives doing what millions of kids dream of around the world. Some know what it is like to score a try front of 70,000 people at the Principality Stadium, others have hit the back of the net from 25 yards out at Wembley whilst a few have celebrated a hundred in an Ashes Test at Lords.

Big money, fast cars and, all importantly, the chance to live the dream by being paid to play the sport they love on a daily basis. Professional sports people seemingly have it all – but it is easy to wrongly assume that they are immune from the grips of depression.

Last week, the retirement of former Wales rugby star Andy Powell at the age of 35 thrust the issue of depression back into the limelight. The ex-British and Irish Lions back row announced he would be quitting the sport with immediate effect, with his club, Merthyr RFC, citing a long-standing knee injury.

But Powell soon opened up about the real reason for his decision to give up rugby, discussing his struggles off the field.

It has been a downward spiral for the 35-year-old, which has eventually seen him fall out of love with the game he once dreamed of playing. In something of a ‘tough guy’ environment, it could not have been easy for Powell to take the step of making his experiences public.

In a revealing interview with BBC Radio Wales, he acknowledged the difficulty in showing his “softer side” given the Rugby life that he has led.

“I’m a very proud man on and off the pitch,” Powell said. “I’m a macho man but everybody has got their soft spots to them. At the time it was beating me up just sat on the sofa when to do it.

“It’s easier said than done because some people don’t like to speak because they are too proud, they think ‘no, I haven’t got it’, but I thought that and I’ve spoken out.”

By speaking out, Powell has sent a clear message to the rugby world that it is acceptable to open up and admit such problems can exist.

He follows in the footsteps of former All Blacks winger John Kirwan, who has been at the forefront of raising awareness of depression in sport over a number of years.

The topic of mental health issues in sport has perhaps never been more prominent, with former Stoke striker Vincent Pericard also revealing just last week how he suffered from “suicidal tendencies” during dark days in the Potteries.

High-profile cricketer Jonathan Trott, who famously came home from the 2013 Ashes tour due to mental health issues, also launched his autobiography, Unguarded, just last month.

Former England opener Marcus Trescothick made headlines with his critically acclaimed book, Coming Back to Me, following similar experiences within his career.

Slowly but surely, a wide variety of sports are seeing high-profile examples of how depression and other mental health issues can impact even the biggest stars.

For Rugby, there has been a much-needed example set by Powell, who has generally been seen as one of the most colourful characters in the game in recent times.

If his experiences strike a cord with just one person, then he will have undoubtedly played his part in tackling the issues that exist.

Whilst the life of a sportsman may seem full of glamour, it is becoming increasingly clear that the mental strain and pressure of performing in front of thousands of expectant fans can have a major effect.

Similarly, the increasingly intense schedules being driven by commercial opportunities around the world are making the life of top-level sportsmen increasingly lonely. Spending months at a time on the road, away from family members, can take its toll on anyone as the likes of Trott and Trescothick have testified.

Although sport, and society in general, is taking positive strides in its approach towards mental health, it is unfortunately an issue that will never be totally solved.

Next month will mark five years since Wales football legend Gary Speed took his own life as a result of a long battle with depression, which only became apparent after his death.

Just two years earlier, German international goalkeeper Robert Enke also committed suicide and left a note, which revealed his secret struggle with depression.

Thankfully, with the example set by the likes of Powell, Trott and Trescothick it appears that the taboo towards talking about such serious issues is gradually eroding.

As sport continues to take positive strides towards recognising and helping those struggling with depression, it can only be hoped that tragic cases such as Speed and Enke will become increasingly rare.

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