Cricketers and depression

2012 Jan 23 by Suresh Menon

Today clinical depression is better understood, better medication has been developed to control it, and even if it is still a mystery to the lay person, the medical literature on it is extensive.

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By Suresh Menon

Fast bowler Steve Harmison’s admission in a BBC documentary that he suffered from depression has focussed attention once more on this least understood of maladies afflicting a sportsman.

Although it is simplistic to bunch everything together, from clinical depression to the ‘blues’, a form of the illness is said to affect 15 percent of men at some time or the other. The case of Andrew Flintoff, who recently spoke of his depression during the 2006-07 Ashes series, is clearly different from that of Harold Gimblett who suffered from clinical depression and took his own life.

So little is understood about depression by the layman that when England’s Michael Yardy was forced to return home during the World Cup last year, ‘expert’ Geoff Boycott joked that the depression was probably caused by his criticism of the player.

In recent years, Australians Michael Slater and Shaun Tait, New Zealanders Iain O’Brien and Lou Vincent have made public their private suffering, while Derbyshire captain Luke Sutton retired from the game at 35. No one has written about the problem with the honesty of Marcus Trescothick who found the courage to come clean.

When Trescothick had a breakdown in a hotel room in Vadodara, those around were sympathetic rather than empathetic for no one understood the implications. The player himself writes in his book: "In that old macho way, I didn't want to admit to anyone what the problem might be…". Initially the official line was that he had gone back to England deal with "family problems". In a carefully orchestrated television interview Trescothick then contradicted that version by saying a bug he had picked up in India had cause his return.

Understandably, it took time for the player to come to terms with his condition, but once he decided to speak the truth, he held nothing back. Coming Back to Me is a record of the mind of a depressive who happened to be an international sportsman.

Trescothick once chose to remain with the England squad rather than return home to his wife, who had to deal with the trauma of an accident to her father that left him in a coma. The guilt scarred him. "I cannot believe that I managed to persuade myself," he writes, "that my captain's needs were greater than my wife's, that the England cricket team was more important than my family."

In Australia, Trescothick was stricken again: "I knew that I had no longer any say in the matter. The illness had come back, the bastard had returned and the shadow cast by its black wings had consumed me again." He returned home.

David Foot's biography of the English batsman Gimblett reveals the illness that dare not speak its name. Two years before he died Gimblett called up Foot and asked him for help to write a book. "The mental battles for me have been enormous," he said, "and maybe it would be a good idea to put it on record." Gimblett, who began his first-class career in 1935 with a century in 63 minutes, spoke into a tape recorder.

At 38, writes Foot, "The straight drive was as potent as ever, the cover drive was in the Hammond class. But for reasons which came from within him, his career was almost over."

Depression was sometimes treated by Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT), a somewhat brutal but often effective technique that induced seizures. Gimblett underwent this treatment, which was also tried on the writers Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Paulo Coelho.

Today clinical depression is better understood, better medication has been developed to control it, and even if it is still a mystery to the lay person, the medical literature on it is extensive.

Yet, it might be prudent if the ICC were to study the problem in some depth and find an answer for the question raised by Iain O’Brien: “Is it cricket that acts as a catalyst for mental illnesses or is it the people who are drawn to it?”