Admiring the honesty and courage of AFL club Geelong's recruit Mitch Clark, David Packman takes a look at the rising specter of depression among professional athletes.
Last Friday night, the Geelong Cats withstood a second-half surge to post an upset win over the Collingwood Magpies in front of over 52,000 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. 27-year-old Geelong recruit Mitch Clark finished the game with a respectable 14 disposals and two goals, but became visibly emotional while walking off the ground and did not take part in the Cats' post-game victory song in the rooms - instead being led away from the group and consoled by coach Chris Scott.
Clark's ongoing battle with depression has been playing out in the most visible way possible over the past year and this most recent event throws open a much broader question about how to manage and support a professional athlete battling such a confronting and difficult condition. Thankfully, in the case of Clark, his club appears to be handling the situation with aplomb, giving Clark all the support they can muster.
Coach Scott spoke candidly about the situation after the match, but said specifics of any conversations he has with Clark regarding the issue needed to remain private. The media have also given Clark plenty of space, as underscored by a tweet from Herald Sun chief football writer Mark Robinson.
Mitch Clark was not injured last night. He had a moment and Chris Scott's handling was superb. Clark needs understanding and support
-- Mark Robinson (@Robbo_heraldsun) May 8, 2015
Meanwhile, to his credit, the young man himself has used his public visibility to promote awareness of depression in the community. Clark recently posted the following on Facebook:
"People think depression is sadness. People think depression is crying. People think depression is dressing in black. But people are wrong. Depression is the constant feeling of being numb. Being numb to emotions, being numb to life. You wake up in the morning just to go back to bed again. Days aren't really days, they are just annoying obstacles that need to be faced. When you're depressed, you grasp on to anything that can get you through the day. Even in a strange way you fall in love with your depression because you think it's all you have. It's not being able to see a way out, to see something good, to feel normal. That's what depression is, not sadness or tears, it's the overwhelming sense of numbness and the desire for anything that can help you make it from one day to the next. Please don't suffer in silence and alone. Reach out and ask for help #youareloved"
Clark has endured a very unlucky run with injury throughout his career, including a Lisfranc issue with his foot that ruined his time with the Melbourne Demons, not long after he moved to the club from the Brisbane Lions in a big money deal in 2012. Under immense pressure to perform for the struggling club, he played just four games for the Demons in 2013 before requiring surgery, and then retired prior to the 2014 season after being diagnosed with clinical depression.
A year on, and Clark has resumed his career with the Cats, kicking 11 goals so far this season. At the time he joined, it was considered a leap of faith by Geelong, who was, of course, well aware of the big forward's ongoing situation. Their confidence in Clark has to date been rewarded, and it appears to be a perfect match; he is performing admirably on and off the field in a very supportive and safe environment - despite, as he himself says, "still learning how best to deal with my dark days". Clark was somewhat tested in the opening round of the season when an opposition player allegedly verbally abused him about his mental condition during the game. He later told friends he was severely "embarrassed" by the reports, describing the incident as "water off a duck's back" and that he was disappointed the story had become public.
Although Clark later recounted the incident to club officials, he told them he did not want to take the issue further. Continuing his mature and transparent approach, his reaction to the event on Friday night was simply to post some heartfelt and very honest words on Instagram, alongside a compelling image taken from within the Cats' inner sanctum.
It's hard to put last night into words. In no way is my situation more important than the great win by the boys last night. I wish this would have stayed out of the media, but also understand that's the world we live in. Depression makes very little sense and rears its head whenever it chooses and unfortunately last night was one of those times. Like I have said I'm nowhere near 'cured' and am still learning how to best deal with my dark days. I'm very fortunate to have such great support around me and grateful for all the messages I have received. Please if you're struggling, reach out and ask for help. You're not alone #youareloved A photo posted by @mitchclark on
With the dramatic rise of depression in society as a whole, it's hardly surprising that situations like Clark's are appearing more and more frequently in professional sport.
Over the past few years, the world has lost - among many others - freestyle skier and Olympic silver medallist Jeret Peterson who shot himself in a canyon in Utah, retired New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu who hanged himself in his California home, two NHL enforcers, including Rick Rypien, who were found dead in suspected suicides and retired Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan who shot himself outside his home. Not to mention the suicide of retired Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy brought on by multiple concussions and knocks to the head, which of course raises another debate entirely.
In most cases however, the media recounts such news with an almost matter-of-fact explanation, whether it's difficulty coping with a career-threatening injury or lack of adequate preparation for life post-sport. The reality of mental illness is usually somewhat buried in the back story.
But let's face facts, athletes are at a high risk for depression, they operate in a pressure cooker environment and are required to live up to extremely high personal, team and public expectations. In fact, some experts have indicated that as many as 15% of professional athletes will suffer from some form of mental illness during their career.
When it comes to life after sport, the numbers are almost certainly much higher. Discussing retired NFL players in an article by Jim Trotter for ESPN, former Packers offensive lineman Aaron Taylor put it this way: "It'd be easier to start with which ones don't have depression. Observationally, it's a significant percentage. It varies by degree, obviously, but everyone struggles."
Many would also remember NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury posting a video of himself back in 2009 crying and eating Vaseline before later admitting that he was depressed and suicidal at that point in his life.
"I wanted to die," he said recently on HBO's Real Sports. "I wanted to kill myself some days."
Even within the ranks of the Cats, it's not the first time they have faced this issue. Simon Hogan, who played 22 games for the club between 2009 and 2011 - and retired due to depression - spoke about his illness in an AFL Media-produced documentary titled The Elephant In The Room, which is now being used to educate young players about mental illness.
Hogan describes how he sat on the floor of his bedroom for two hours with a bottle of sleeping tablets, "not wanting my life to end, but wanting to end the pain and not knowing how to do it."
He was initially fearful of the way his Geelong teammates would react to his situation.
"I guess the manliness and the macho culture associated with football clubs was a big part of why I tried to hide what I was going through," Hogan explains. "I thought I couldn't show any weakness."
"The most surprising thing, once I did open up, was the incredible support I got from everyone," he said.
To a large degree, the supposed "infallibility" of an athlete is a significant part of the issue. Our sporting heroes are required to be superior beings. Fine-tuned individuals who could swat away any signs of mental anguish like a fly. Athletes will often try to take on this persona and become even harder on themselves as a result. Statistics show they're even less likely to seek help than the general population.
There are also those outside sport who still find it hard to understand how a professional athlete with the world apparently at their feet has any valid "reason" to be depressed. The inconvenient truth is that depression doesn't require a reason, and fame and fortune won't protect anyone. While a paradigm shift has been made in recent times, public attitude still has a large role to play in destigmatizing mental illness.
As such, work must continue for sports administrative bodies and clubs alike to help create an environment where athletes are comfortable in raising the issue of mental illness, and this will only happen when there is no longer a fear that by doing so they will be discriminated against, or that their sporting future will be severely impacted. Much thought should also be given to supporting those transitioning into life after retirement.
While the AFL seems to be moving in the right direction - and the case of Mitch Clark and the Geelong Cats, although still a work-in-progress, is one to be applauded - it's remarkable that it's taken this long to appreciate the seriousness and scope of mental illness within sport, especially when you consider the importance placed on an athlete's physical condition.
By David Packman
This piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project.
David Packman is the International Sports Editor for The Good Men Project. He has previously written about his own battle with depression.
Photo Credit: Facebook (Mitch Clark)
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