• En route to glory... Stephen Wooldridge leads the Australian men's team pursuit squad at the Athens Olympic Games. (AAP)Source: AAP
The untimely passing of champion cyclist Stephen Wooldridge should not be an opportunity to celebrate his sporting achievements, but one to begin or continue a dialogue about allowing people to openly talk about themselves without fear or favour, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
19 Aug 2017 - 12:14 PM  UPDATED 19 Aug 2017 - 12:28 PM

Judging from the number of tributes following his sudden and tragic death, Stephen Wooldridge was a extremely popular and well-liked individual, and very decent human being. A person others wanted to be around; to be his friend.

Yet it seems he never felt more sad or alone.

Most news reports I read used the words "he gave his life away", quoting cycling promoter Phil Bates; very few actually said "suspected suicide", like The Independent did, although virtually all put details of self-help lines at the end of their stories.

We're constantly and implicitly being told we must feel happy or present a happy face, so much that we've now become afraid of feeling or looking otherwise.

I'm no psychologist, but isn't this the irony? That the open discussion of depression, repressed feelings, suicidal thoughts, or the act itself, is still so taboo? That those suffering (and let's be honest here, this is suffering well beyond anything we see at the Tour de France) feel so inhibited about opening up to their family or closest friends, they keep their innermost thoughts bottled up, and instead put on a facade?

In a letter on Facebook, Wooldridge's friend and fellow cyclist Bruce-John McIntosh made it clear what we were talking about:

"I am lost for words. You have left thousands of broken hearts with family and friends that will never recover, but this is about you. How did it come to this? You had a loving family, amazing friends, achieved more than most people could ever achieve in 10 lifetimes."

McIntosh added that mental health issues were commonplace among professional sportspeople. "I can think of hundreds of professional athletes that battle the same struggles," he wrote. "There is not a person in my life that at some stage (hasn't) battled with something, we should not pigeonhole our high profile athletes that they also don't struggle with their own battles."

I think it goes beyond the professional athlete. Knowing people close to me who suffer from mental health issues, and who are not involved in professional sport, my feeling is that it often stems from society's expectations to always be cheerful, or at least give the appearance of being so. And the more we expect this of ourselves, the less inclined we are to say otherwise, and the less likely our family and friends are to ask and have a meaningful conversation about it.

Rather timely, the ABC's Nightlife radio program aired a feature this week under the title, 'Is the pursuit of happiness making us sad?' According to statistics, rates of depression in the Western world are skyrocketing, yet we're simultaneously being bombarded with so-called experts telling us how to achieve happiness. Particularly through the advent of social media, we're constantly and implicitly being told we must feel happy or present a happy face, so much that we've now become afraid of feeling or looking otherwise.

When's the last time one of your friends posted a picture of themselves on Facebook or Instagram looking down in the dumps? Is there anything wrong with feeling neither happy or unhappy? Have many of us forgotten what actually makes us happy?

To suggest Stephen's problems began because of the indignation of not being able to stand on the podium in Athens after his team won gold in the team pursuit is a long bow. From the accounts I've read he was able to joke about it soon afterwards, and was man and modest enough not to feel aggrieved. Nor did he try to milk his athletic success for commercial gain; he simply got on with life as an administrator at the University of New South Wales, and helped out with Olympic team or cycling-related fundraising efforts whenever he could.

My feelings are rawest not for the loss of an Olympic champion, but for the loss of a father to his two children, and of a good friend to so many, not to mention the tragedy that has now engulfed his family.

For me, the conversation must extend well beyond the 'R U OK?' message, although it's a good start.

When a family or friend is showing signs that things aren't okay, first and foremost, take the time to listen. Don't be afraid to ask what's bothering them, or offer to help further by way of accompanying them to a therapist, and make an effort to stay in touch more regularly.

Yes, the easy way is to do nothing, ignore, pretend everything's okay, only hang around those who make you smile... But what happens when it happens to you?

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.