The death of comedian Robin Williams has turned the spotlight on depression in the past 24 hours, and may hopefully be the catalyst for more people to take this illness seriously and look for the signs in others.
As much as the comedy world has suffered many comedians committing suicide, so too has the sporting world. In fact one scary statistic is in every country where Test cricket is played the suicide level in ex players is higher than the national average.
The most recent and high profile loss was when the ebullient during his playing days, David Bairstow took his own life. In 1997, Bairstow took an overdose of tablets,he survived this incident, but a few weeks later he hanged himself at his home in Yorkshire. The coroner recorded an open verdict, saying that he was not convinced Bairstow had meant to kill himself, and that his actions may instead have been a “cry for help”. HIs son, Jonny, has managed to continue a career in cricket and has gone on to represent England like his father.
Andrew Stoddart was an outstanding athlete. Not only did he captain England at cricket but he also along with fellow cricketers Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury (Who incidentally also took his own life) helped organise what became recognised as the first British Lions rugby union tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888. Stoddart even took over the captaincy early in the tour when the Robert L. Seddon died in a sculling accident. In 1890 Stoddart again showing his openness to new ventures, became a founding member of the Barbarians, the invitational rugby club. Sadly he too took his own life in 1915 aged just 52.
One Olympic athlete who few would remember to have taken his own life Japanese bronze medallist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Kokichi Tsuburaya. After the Tokyo Olympics, Kokichi suffered from an ongoing back problems. In 1968, he committed suicide by in his dormitory room where he had stayed during training for the Mexico City Olympics. In his suicide note, he thanked his parents, family and trainers for their contributions, and wished his fellow runners to do well. A rough translation of the end of his note read “I am too exhausted to run any more. Please forgive me. I’m sorry for causing my parents concern and worry, but this is for the best. Thank you very much for everything you have done for me.” He was twenty-seven years old. Many say Athletics is a lonely place and the marathon the loneliest of places, but no one will ever know how lonely and desperate Tsuburaya felt.
In football we have witnessed two very sad losses in recent times that of former Welsh International Gary Speed and German goalkeeper Robert Enke. Interestingly Speed was described after his death as a “glass half empty person” by his mother, yet few saw his suicide coming. Robert Enke’s fight with depression is covered in detail in Ronald Reng’s outstanding biography, “A Life too Short, The Tragedy of Robert Enke.” As a mark of respect for Enke after his passing, the German national team cancelled their friendly match against Chile. A minute’s silence was also held at all Bundesliga games and at his former club Benfica’s game in the Cup of Portugal. Germany also cancelled a planned training session and all interviews after his death.
However once the silence had passed life carried on as normal, and those suffering like Enke slipped once more back into the shadows of despair.
Many have tried to explain why the loss in cricket is higher than in other sports, was it the length of the game and the time players spend together, was it the limited opportunities when they retire, was it the fact that many had signed up as youngsters and had no other skill to their name on which to fall back. No doubt other sports have analysed why athletes just as people from all walks of life take their now lives when they appear to the rest of us to have so much to live for.
These may well have been some of the reasons, but they are definitely not the sole reasons. Depression is an illness and many who suffer it feel that they are left on the outer, like a fielder who is left on the boundary all afternoon in the hot sun, or a goalkeeper standing alone in his goal while play continues at the other end of the pitch. That sense of loneliness amongst many is something that is hard to explain, and at times even harder to understand.
If we want to try and lessen the loss of life due to depression we have to be more aware of the tell tale signs and become more educated and understanding. Just as we would help a team mate on the pitch so too must we help them off it.