Thorpe's battle with depression not unique among athletes: expert

The admission of decorated Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe to rehab for treatment of depression has highlighted the issue of depression among athletes.

Ian Thorpe

Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe Source: SBS

Decorated Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe is in rehab for depression – something he’s been battling for quite some time. But he isn’t the only athlete suffering from the disease. Numerous professional athletes are dealing with their depression silently or bravely speaking out about it.

Romi Levine spoke to sports psychologist Tracey Veivers about the pressures and challenges athletes have to deal with during their career and after it ends.

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Q: We’re looking at the relationship between athletes and depression in the context of Ian Thorpe’s battle with the disease and his admission into rehab. This relationship, however, isn’t unique. Many athletes have spoken out about their depression – so are athletes prone to depression or are there other factors that are at play?

A: “I don’t believe athletes are prone to depression any more than any citizen within our society or community. However there is an element of exacerbated pressure that particularly elite Olympic, Paralympic and professional athletes feel because what they do for a living is so precisely measureable and, quite publicly, it can play out when their performances aren’t up to standard. But also they answer to a lot of key stakeholders, a lot more than the average person. They have a variety of coaching staff they have to answer to as well as maybe a sense of obligation to family for financial support and what have you, and then they also answer to the public and the media.”

Q: Let’s talk about depression in general for a second. This is a quote from Ian Thorpe speaking to the Guardian newspaper in 2012 – this is what he says about his experience with depression: “It's like a weight is pressing down on you. There are days when you just can't get out of bed. You cannot face the world. You tell yourself simple things like: 'Just get to the kitchen and get a glass of water.' But not being able to do something so basic is frightening.” So he’s talking about his symptoms of depression, what are some of the other tell-tale signs of depression?

A: “Yes, certainly that lack of motivation and a great deal of lethargy are two indicators, but there are simple things. Sleep disturbance, mood swings and particularly if someone is withdrawing more from what they like to do or even need to do. And it can play out as well, as I mentioned, where there’s an effect on work or sporting performance.”

Q: And it seems like this is quite common when the symptoms of depression are exaggerated once an athlete’s career is over. Some of them have a hard time coming to terms with their retirement or career ending injury and it’s a well -known saying in the sporting community that athletes die twice – the first time after they retire. Why is that the case?

A: “Retirement I think for any individual is a major transition to negotiate, but particularly for adults. I mean two things. First of all an elite athlete has had a very different socialisation process through the bulk part of their adult years where they can kind of live in a bubble that their sport creates. And then they have to adapt to the real world. The other thing to consider for elite athletes, and even amateur athletes, a large part of their identity is caught up in their sport, in the lifestyle that their sport structures. And when that comes to an end, and particularly if it’s… not so much when it’s an ending of their own choice – retirement – but if it’s a delistment or retirement due to injury, that particular athlete may not feel ready to make the necessary changes required in adapting to that transition.”

Q: So it’s getting out of the cycle of being a creature of habit and not having that routine to fall back on often. It reminds me of a quote from famous boxer called Sugar Ray Leonard, he was also suffering from depression after he retired, and he said: “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” So I think there’s that other element of the fame and of being well-known, and going from that to not being of any significance on the world stage.

A: “Yes but I think also I think on more simpler terms I think it’s that sense of satisfaction, that they’ve achieved something. Something that they’ve been working very hard towards and that acknowledgement, that intrinsic and extrinsic acknowledgement, that they have actually reached that objective is very exciting, very satisfying. And sometimes, particularly if sport is a really big passion of theirs, it’s hard to find anything that can replace that once they retire.”

Q: Are there any steps that an athlete can take to offset the negative side effects of retirement, to avoid having such a deep level of depression?

A: “An athlete does need to plan that their sport and their competitiveness at that elite level will come to an end, so they need to plan for that. And I think if they can all athletes should try to juggle interests whilst still competing. So studying, getting mentored and trying to get some skills that they can fall back on and transition into to pursue a career outside of sport.”

Are there any programs that can help athletes transition out of their career in athletics into something else?

“I think there are a great deal of sports that really haven’t given it the attention it deserves and I think that’s too why sometimes athletes can feel forgotten. But more importantly what I think is that every sport embraces sport psychology and have a practitioner in place that works with the program that can actually help athletes develop the skills required to manage life transitions.”

Q: A lot of athletes have spoken out about their depression, but then there’s lots of athletes that keep it inside and are really struggling with it internally. I know Ian Thorpe said that with the fame and fortune and being appreciated as an athlete meant that you feel kind of shameful that you are suffering from depression, because you shouldn’t be suffering from depression. So where can these athletes that are suffering find help, what are the steps they should be taking?

A: “Look I think you’re right, I think there’s a lot of shame. Everyone says that, ‘how lucky I am’ and ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way’. I think first, if an athlete or even a teammate can identify that someone is not themselves or if someone can feel that this isn’t, ‘I don’t feel right’ and this has been longer than a week or two weeks, and being smart about it. Saying ‘I don’t deserve to feel this way’ or ‘my teammate doesn’t deserve to feel this way’, ‘we need to get him or her support’ or ‘I need to get support’.”

Q: Do you think that the media plays a role in the self-esteem and confidence of an athlete? Because if an athlete doesn’t do well in a competition, the media often reports on their failure with an exaggerated headline, some kind of public shaming. Do you think that this kind of media shaming serves as a catalyst for depression?

A: “Having worked in this field for 20 years now, there’s no doubt that the media is playing more and more of a part on the pressure an athlete feels. As well as that sense of they need to probably try and keep things a little bit more secret or quiet because they don’t want it playing out in a high profile format. I think the media can contribute and doe we have less of a focus on everything being so black and white and that everything is measureable in goals or it’s always about a win or a loss. Let’s embrace the journey our athletes go on.”

Readers seeking support and information about depression can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.

8 min read
Published 4 February 2014 at 3:12pm
By Romi Levine
Source: SBS