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Cricket news - The other side of silence
If we've learnt anything about mental illness over the last two weeks, it's that it can affect anyone, and at any time. After all, the four brave cricketers who either admitted to currently dealing with it or having felt its impact in the past could not have been at four more distinct stages of their respective careers.
Glenn Maxwell seemed to be on top of his game, hitting boundaries for fun and running out batsmen while being mic'd up. Nic Maddinson had just made a spectacular return with the bat after overcoming his mental demons a couple of years back. Poor Will Pucovski, for the second time in the year, suffered from a relapse on the cusp of a potential Test debut. And thousands of miles away, Virat Kohli revealed that the difficult 2014 tour of England had left him with an "end-of-the-world" feeling.
These weren't just four elite sportsmen baring their souls though. These were young men who have thrived in a bubble that has historically glorified strength and vilified weakness, breaking those shackles at the risk of exposing their supposed vulnerabilities. By reaching out, they had also made a strong statement that if it can affect them, it can affect anybody. And if they can talk about it, so can everyone else. For like Australian Test captain Tim Paine said in Adelaide last week, the enormous spike in mental illnesses is not just a cricket problem. It really is one of the biggest issues dogging human society around the world in modern times.
You don't have to look too hard to contextualise the scenario on a global scale. The fact is that 1 in 4 persons - that number is 1 in 5 between the ages of 18 and 85 in Australia - suffers from a mental health problem that needs treatment at some point in life. Depression has now overtaken heart disease as the leading cause for disability in the world. And the most worrying fact of them all, that only 5-10 per cent of the 300 million people who suffer from mental illnesses ever reach out for help.
The incessant fear of failure etched in the fabric of Indian cricket, and the "intolerance towards mistakes" has a major impact on the mental state of every cricketer emerging from and surviving in the country
So even as a majority will look at the sudden spate of sportspersons coming out with their issues as a potential crisis, the world of psychiatry is likely to view this as a tipping point in the whole commentary surrounding mental health, a much-needed breakthrough to, once and for all, replace the stigma and taboo associated with mental illness with awareness and acceptance.
For, as renowned sports psychologist Sandy Gordon puts it, "the alternative to talking about it is always leading to something sinister". Gordon has worked with a number of sports teams at various levels - including the Australian, Indian and Sri Lankan national teams - over the last two decades. In that time, he's also witnessed the landscape of sport change dramatically to such an extent that "the potential for mental illness is quite palpable".
"Elite-level sport is very much part of the entertainment industry now. The pressures of that on athletes now has led to them becoming victims, and being exploited and manipulated to survive so that the system that the sport landscape is in thrives. It's become this pursuit of dollars and commercial success, which rarely takes into consideration the well-being of athletes. It's all about scheduling. It's all about TV rights. And the athletes do reach a breaking point where it is humanly impossible to sustain their appetite for such an endeavour," Gordon tells Cricbuzz.
"When you are engaged in a sport at that level, there's a burning desire to succeed and avoid failure. But they produce paradoxical, countervailing effects. Elite athletes need to have an obsessiveness in the perfectionism and be ruthless and selfish to hone their craft. All these things facilitate success but also undermine mental health," adds Gordon, who is currently an associate professor of sports and exercise psychology at the University of Western Australia (UWA).
It's not like the very essence of sport has changed greatly since Gordon's last involvement with international cricket, when he assisted Sri Lanka during the 2007 World Cup. And nor will it ever. Teams, organisations and players will continue to strive for perfection and the scrutiny, meanwhile, will only get more intense as the coverage intensifies and expands.
And while Gordon believes that aspect of sport can never be controlled, it can certainly be managed better by finding the right balance which focuses on the mental well-being of its most important subjects. According to him, what has changed is the volume of play, wherein there's literally no downtime for the players, either physically or mentally. While he isn't sure that there was a mental health issue simmering under the surface previously, he believes that it has certainly bubbled to the surface of late owing to the athletes literally reaching a point where they go, "this is too hard, this it too much".
"I don't know how many versions of cricket we play these days. It's just one sport. And there's no break in the season. I work with the Perth Wildcats (in the National Basketball League) and their players finish a season here and they go to the northern hemisphere and keep going," says Gordon.
Incidentally, it was the more macho sport of Australian rules football that witnessed the first outbreak of players reaching out for help. And while there was a lot of support and sympathy for them from teams and associations alike, a lot of fans online didn't quite accept their condition as being genuine and instead lashed out in rather unkind fashion. How could these well-built and extremely talented young men who play sport for a living and earn millions of dollars have anything to complain about or be upset about? And that too in Australia, where sport is demanded to be played with an unyielding bloody-mindedness, putting body and mind over matter in an unrelenting quest to win.
"That's part of the commodification and commercialisation of sport that the media has brought to bear, which leads to the constant creation of heroes and villains and thereby polarizes people who come up with some nonsensical statements whenever there's a case like this," explains Gordon.
What he wants to focus on though is the changing climate in Australia, with elite athletes being encouraged to have the capability and capacity to talk about what they're going through without having to face any repercussions of old, "like them being subsequently considered weak and being asked to go off for good".
"The preponderance of the issues that are being reported now are more of a function of the availability to speak up and not be victimised and not be stigmatised," he says.
Gordon spent three years with the Indian team, including at the 2003 World Cup where Sourav Ganguly's men bounced back from a tepid start to reach the final. The West Australian had spent his previous three years with Steve Waugh's invincibles, starting with playing a role in helping them win the 1999 World Cup. And often during his time in India, he would be asked to compare the two cultures, and about what Indian cricket could imbibe from the Australian way. Often enough, Gordon would point to the incessant fear of failure that was etched in the fabric of Indian cricket, and how the "intolerance towards mistakes" had a major impact on the mental state of every cricketer emerging from and surviving in the country at that stage.
Though a lot has changed since then across both countries, common logic would suggest that the atmosphere of Indian cricket - where elite players are never allowed an escape from the bubble and have to endure incessant scrutiny - is a breeding ground for mental health problems. Why then was Kohli the first-ever Indian cricketer of renown to bring up the topic - and only in reference to the Maxwell situation? Could we just pin it completely on the difference in cultures and India's innate societal pressures? Or is there a chance Indians are just more mentally adept to deal with it? The answer to the latter is of course a resounding no, regardless of which psychologist you speak to anywhere in the world.
Gordon in fact scoffs at the suggestion. Divya Jain thankfully just laughs at it. If anything, she is of the belief that environment and thought process have a very negligible role to play in mental illness. Jain heads the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare in Delhi. She's also worked extensively with sportspersons at the highest level around India and believes the problem there lies in the basic understanding of the matter, where mental illness is still not perceived in a scientific manner and instead riddled with traditional myths.
"Like they'll say a person has a weak character or personality. Or it's related directly to some sort of stress. They should or can snap out of it. We need to start treating it as a physical illness. It's like someone taking a few months off work because they've had a fracture. Just like anyone can get injured at any time, the same can happen with mental illness. It needs to have a preventive and curative component," says Jain.
Elite-level sport is very much part of the entertainment industry now. The pressures of that on athletes now has led to them becoming victims, and being exploited and manipulated to survive so that the system that the sport landscape is in thrives. It's become this pursuit of dollars and commercial success, which rarely takes into consideration the well-being of athletes.
Psychologists and experts in mental health look at these cases from a "biopsychosocial model" according to Jain. And the science she talks about immediately puts to waste the general conception around mental illnesses, which forever links it to external forces - whether it's to do with those playing sport or those watching it, and even those who do neither.
"The biological model is the medical aspect of it. There are certain chemicals in our system that impact our mental health in certain ways. This is a predominant factor in depression and anxiety disorders and it's a very strong biological base. There is a strong distinction between mental illness and stress which needs to be identified. Then there are protective factors like your own personality, how you learn to cope with situations, how you learn to deal with adversity or how much of a social structure you have in terms of family, friends or colleagues which at times can affect you adversely and negatively," she says.
Gordon though does insist that certain sportspersons can be slightly more prone to mental health issues than others, purely based on their personalities. He distinguishes them as being "ego-oriented" as opposed to "mastery-oriented".
"Ego-oriented people are setting themselves for a fall. They're only interested in beating somebody else or being better than somebody else. Whereas a mastery-oriented personality is more about getting better than they were previously. Winning is basically defined as being better today than I was yesterday, every day," he says. And it's easy to say where Steve Smith fits the bill, with his pre-Ashes mantra of "better tomorrow, better the day after, and better the day after tomorrow".
Jain doesn't believe that the societal stigma in the subcontinent is greater than anywhere else. It's only that the degree might vary in some cases. She, however, looks at Kohli's decision to talk about what he dealt with back in 2014 as a very positive sign. In her words, a celebrity coming out about mental illnesses "normalises" the issue.
"Now that Kohli has spoken, suddenly you notice the number of people who'll come out and say they've had this kind of issue. It has a ripple effect when it's someone relatable to you. It starts a trend. An Australian person talking about it might not give me the confidence to talk about it to an Indian we look up to and even idolise. The minute the conversation starts, it gives people space to express. Even that validation in your own self. That's our goal. If they reach out, we can help," says Jain. Simply put, as she adds, "A single tweet from a celebrity on it has more impact than me giving 10,000 lectures on the subject."
Like Gordon, she too believes that there's still a lot of scope for sports bodies to find ways of providing better support systems to their elite athletes. She cites injury as a huge space where chances of mental illness increase substantially, purely owing to the vulnerability of a player. "And while we look at physical rehab, the mental health component gets overlooked often," she says.
So have we reached a point where perhaps every dressing-room or dugout should be equipped with a psychologist at all times in a more preventive than curative fashion? Gordon certainly believes it's high time.
"Behavioural science is arguably the hub of the wheel in that sense. Psychologists are absolutely front and centre of it, and behavioural science needs to get a lot more credence for its potential in developing a culture within teams that is manageable. But it's also psychologically healthy. I would definitely think there needs to be an outlet for people to talk in confidence about personal, intimate situations without the glare of the rest of the team. The psychological safety issue is very important. So that people can be candid, they can put their hand up and say that, 'Look I'm struggling here.' You don't want players getting cynical about the game," he says.
In an Indian context, Jain ascertains there are more sports stars consulting experts over mental illnesses than talking about it. And it's again how the issue is viewed, where it's all kept hush-hush even while every intricate detail of every ACL injury is always made available to the public. In that sense, India still has a long way to go before catching up with the more developed world.
"There's still a fear of how it will be perceived by people. Why do you need to go to someone? It might not fit with the image of sports, which glorifies strength and perseverance," she says. There's also the additional challenge in India when it comes to the backgrounds of a lot of contemporary sportspersons, who generally hail from the hinterland, where the awareness of mental health is even more archaic. Jain admits that there is a need to develop a language to spread the word further so that more people can be reached out to.
"We have close to an 800 per cent shortage of mental health experts in the country. The majority we have are in bigger cities. You can go hundreds of kilometres in the villages with one person consulting and seeing 100-200 patients a day. General accessibility of mental health professionals is a problem. But what emotions people go through are universal. What meaning and cause they attach to it may vary. They might not know why they are not able to sleep at night or concentrate, or they are feeling lethargic. They probably cannot correlate," she says. But the Kohli ripple effect, she's confident, will find its way to the far reaches of Indian society too.
Gordon doesn't believe that "goodwill" alone is enough to deal with the extent of how far-reaching an issue mental illness has become in the modern world. "We could be getting to a situation where the Australian Sports Commission mandates the appointment of people in these roles," he says.
Jain though is prepared for now to play the long game and insists the biggest weapon against the debilitating impact of mental illness is to simply keep talking. She says, "The moment people start asking for help, half the battle is won." And clearly it's a battle that needs to be won.
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