This article was originally published in the Bristol Pitbulls programme in our match against the Swindon Wildcats. Bits in Italics are new additions to the post.
A while ago, I posted a picture on Instagram and lifting the lid on my mental health issues. To be honest, I have been wanting to do this write up for a long time, but haven’t – for one reason or another – had the guts to do it. When I initially posted the picture, I did not expect the avalanche of messages, “likes” or subsequent re-tweets – though I find it rather rather ironic that you have to ‘like’ someone’s status about mental illness. I did not post the picture to get likes or re-tweets, but rather to show people that there are those who deal with mental health issues within a competitive, semi-professional sports environment. This was brought on by some comments I had seen on various social media platforms and club officials calling others “mentally ill.” This article has not been written so that I can go on some ego-trip, but to encourage talk around the issues of mental health in a competitive sports environment.
Where in “normal” society, the stigma around depression and mental illness has dissipated and it is better understood, it is still carries a stigma within sports. I’m not saying that everyone is understanding about depression and would rather people just ‘shake it off’. However, in sports it is often seen as a weakness and players can be seen as ‘damaged goods’ as depression can hinder the career prospects of a professional athlete, or a prospect. In the world of sports, specifically in hockey, chirping is part of the game. If someone publicly states that they suffer from depression, you can expect that opponents will make use of it to try and gain a mental edge.
I have been dealing with depression and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) since November last year, or at least that’s when I sought help, while in honesty, I’ve been probably dealing with these problems for a lot longer. Rather than confront my issues I started to spiral downwards and I had come to the point where I felt that ending it all would be the best option. I was unable to talk about how I felt, because at the time it would’ve felt like admitting defeat. Though I now realise that I should have sought help sooner.
Before then, it was a real struggle at home, at work, at hockey and at the gym. I was having anxiety attacks before I could walk into the office or any other public place and always wanted to be the first one in the changing room so I could get settled. I felt I had to put a face on to be in any situation that required any form of social interaction. In truth, I would’ve rather been curled up in a ball on the floor.
It was – and still is at times – an emotional drain to go to a social situation, but at least I am not at a point where I feel like people (people that I don’t even know), are talking crap about me. I was getting really paranoid about things, even when going to town, I would think that people around were constantly talking about me or judging me. The same would go on at the gym, where normally, I would listen to my own music, but had to start taking my headphones out to make sure some meatheads weren’t talking crap about me.
So why speak out? I feel that there isn’t enough talk about mental health in the world of pro-sports. While there are several noble causes, like #BellLetsTalk, I can’t remember than an active professional player would have spoken out about their issues. There are a number of cases where athletes have come forward post career to talk about it and it is admirable. But to have an active player stepping out and saying “I suffer from depression,” would certainly highlight the issue and to show that it is possible to succeed.
Am I worried about potential backlash from other players? No. During my career, I’ve had opponents/opposing fans say they wish “I’d die”, I’ve been called pretty much everything under the sun, but I try and approach it as part of the game and nothing personal. Besides, the beloved child has many names. My worst enemy on the ice is myself and it is something that I am working on. I set myself high standards and if I don’t meet those standards, I will get angry at myself and start to resent the whole game.
Why keep this from my teammates and coaches? To me this was a personal issue and not a problem the team had to deal with. I didn’t want any kind of special treatment from coaches or conversely (wrongly) that my ice time would be reduced because of this. Additionally, I didn’t want my teammates to act different around me or watch what they had to say. They don’t and it was the group of guys in the room that kept my sanity.
But won’t that be true now, I hear you ask. Well, it might be, but I am in a good place now where it doesn’t affect me in the way that it did in the past. There was a time when I had to block certain social media channels (such as @NIHLNewz on twitter) because the stuff, where intended as a joke, was really getting to me, even though I only received two tweets from said account. It is all well and good to joke and to have a laugh in the team environment and with the fans, but when it comes to the online realm, it is always worth remembering that there is a person behind the joke you are making, and you can never truly know how they might feel about it.
There has been a lot of talk about mental health of late and some media outlets have stigmatised the issue in the aftermath of the GermanWings tragedy. “News” outlets such as the Daily Mail have made a big splash about it, reporting on its front page “Why on earth was he allowed to fly”, implying that any depressed person should not be allowed to operate machinery of any kind. There was also a tweet from a professional Twitter troll Katie Hopkins saying that “all depressed people need is a pair of running shoes and fresh air,” or that all depression is, is like standing in the rain with a Primark paper bag. To this I can only reply that Katie: I work out 5 times a week at the gym, I run 5 times per week and I play hockey at a competitive, semi-professional level and yet I am still struggling with mental health issues.
Where I do agree with the sentiment that exercise helps with mental health, it is not the only solution. I should know this, I went years without medication or seeking help and spiralled deeper and deeper . I find solace at the gym and weight lifting as well as hockey, but like I described above, when you are in the grips of depression, it is really, REALLY, difficult to actually get going and start moving. The threshold that you need to step over is monumental and if you haven’t experienced it yourself, it is difficult to understand. But to say that depression is something that is a minor nuisance (standing in a rain with a paper bag or your public transport running late) is just ignorant.
The reason why I wanted to lift the lid on this was to show that I am in a good place where I feel comfortable about talking about these issues and to show that even when the world drop-kicks you in the face it is possible to go on. It is always worth carrying on. If me talking about it will help just one person, then it was definitely worth opening up about. At the same time, whilst I’ve reached a ‘comfortable’ place mentally, I know I am not out of the woods yet, but every time I talk about this, or write about it, I feel better. So with that, if there is a reader out there that needs help, I’m here with open heart and ears.