Kicking The Dog

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MF talks to three Aussie sports stars about their battle with depression — “the black dog” — how it affected their lives and careers, and their strategies for coping.

By Jonathan Horn

Looking back, 33-year-old Heath Black believes he had all the hallmarks of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) by the age of three or four. However, it was another two decades before he recognised he had a mental illness. By that time, he was a well-known AFL footballer with the Fremantle Dockers, training like a fiend and knocking back booze at a rate that would put a wharfie to shame. For days before games, he was bedevilled by chronic anxiety, with incessant vomiting, diarrhoea and urination. Just the normal butterflies, those around him said, but he knew it was much more serious than that.

Still, the idea of confiding in teammates or coaches and admitting he had a mental illness was out of the question. “I would never have told anyone I had a problem,” he says. “Personally, I would have put on a real front if someone had approached me and asked if was in control of things. I would have been like, ‘Nah, I’m OK. I’m right’. I suppose I became a really good liar.”

“It was that blokey mentality. I let my condition spiral and cripple me before confiding in anybody and seeking help. Besides, rightly or wrongly, I thought that if I approached a coach or welfare officer and told them I was suffering, I would probably have been dropped.”

Similarly, former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone recognised some early danger signs, but was loathe to seek help for many years. “All the way back to when I was in high school in South Africa, I knew something wasn’t quite right,” the 26-test veteran says. “Even then, I used sport as a coping mechanism. Later on, I had a five-year period where I was dealing with serious injury and during that time there were blocks where I was dealing with some pretty serious depression. When I got injured, it just magnified everything. There was a lot of negative self-talk, especially when it became a chronic thing. In the end, I lost all resilience. I didn’t want to be training. I lost form. I got dropped. And I fell further and further down the rabbit hole.”

For Josh Watson, the realisation that all was not well came at the tail end of a successful international swimming career, which netted the champion backstroker a silver medal in the 4 x 100m relay at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. “I had attached so much of my significance as a human being to what I did and what I achieved,” he says. “All of a sudden, I thought, well hang on, who am I? What is it that’s going to allow me to have any purpose in life? I was lost. I lost my marriage, I was addicted to gambling and I was severely depressed.”

Like Black, he was reluctant to discuss his problem with teammates, many of whom were competitors for spots on the Australian team. “Very few athletes are going to put up their hand and say they’re struggling,” he says. “It goes against everything they stand for. They’re all about strength and positivity and winning. Few of them admit there’s a problem. They’d rather live the charade and go through life hoping that everyone else thinks they’re doing great.”

TRIGGER POINTS

Now 34, Watson believes the transition into retirement represented a prime danger period. “By and large, athletes are forgotten once they stop competing,” he says. “I actually think that’s a good thing. Their ego needs to be left at the ground floor and they need to start again. However, it’s a difficult situation. You assume that because you’re successful in sport, no matter what you do, you’ll be successful in life. But athlete transition is such a misunderstood situation, particularly for those suffering from depression. Once you recognise you’re in trouble, you’re usually outside the net of support.”

Rathbone concurs. “It wasn’t until I retired [Rathbone quit rugby union prematurely at 27 due to injury] that I really had to confront my mental illness,” the 30-year-old says. “I no longer had that crutch of the week-to-week focus. You go to bed one day and you’re in this bubble of professional sport. And then you wake up the next morning and suddenly no one cares.”

Conversely, Black’s life rocketed out of control long before his career wound up. He was self-medicating with the adrenalin of football, together with copious amounts of alcohol. “This is up for debate, but I strongly believe that using higher volumes of alcohol changed the chemicals in my brain,” he says. “I think my being bipolar lay dormant, but stepping up my alcohol use really brought it out. In the last five years of my career, I used alcohol three times a week during the week, and then both Saturday and Sunday. And they were ridiculously high amounts each time.”

DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Fed up with his mood swings and benders, Black’s wife kicked him out of home and, for nearly six months, one of Western Australia’s fittest and most recognisable athletes was living and eating out of his car. “When you’re mentally ill, you don’t necessarily think that anything is wrong,” he says. “You don’t realise that you’ve hit rock bottom, even when you’re assaulting police, being publicly humiliated and everyone thinking that you’re a thug. You wake up the next day and you say ‘Oh that wasn’t so bad, I’m still alive’.”

Watson’s poison was betting. “I had all this newfound freedom and choice and all the things I’d missed out on because of the sacrifices I’d made in swimming. Suddenly, I had money and time to gamble with.

If I had a win on the horses or the pokies, I would attribute that to me, ridiculously. I’d think, ‘I did that’. That was me justifying the short-term wins I had and totally forgetting the huge amounts I was blowing.”

After a series of nights in the lock-up, Black eventually sought help through the AFLPA (AFL Players Association), wrote a searingly honest book and was recently diagnosed Bipolar II [when a person experiences episodes of both hypomania — incredible energy surges and ideas overload — and depression]. He considers the medication for his depression “at the top of my treatment pyramid”, but believes conventional medical thought relies too heavily on pharmaceuticals. “We have far too many people in society walking around taking anti-depressants from their GP, because they hand them out like lollies,” he says. “And they’re often still making rash, poor decisions.”

With his marriage failing and his depression intensifying, Rathbone finally opened up to his wife and visited a doctor. “You go in, you see a GP, you sit there for 12 minutes and they attempt to problem-solve on the basis of very limited information,” he says. “I was amazed that the doctor didn’t ask questions about my lifestyle — my diet, how I was sleeping, whether I was exercising — yet he was more than happy to tell me which  pills to take. I left there thinking, ‘This is the most pure reflection of the problem that we have’. We treat symptoms, as opposed to the person as a whole. Once we change that mindset, we’ll see a shift from a cultural perspective, but we’re working within a system that needs an overhaul and it’s going to take time.”

In all cases, lifestyle intervention and a holistic approach was essential. “Establishing and maintaining some really simple life changes has made a huge difference,” Rathbone says. “I really prioritised and focused on my sleep, making sure it was consistent. Exercising regularly was also crucial. Even something such as getting good sun exposure is not an obvious one, yet there’s a lot of research into vitamin D deficiency and the effect on depression. And making sure that my social networks were healthy — catching up with mates and family, making them know how much I value them — has been paramount.”

THE LONG ROAD BACK

Though initially sceptical, Rathbone was also a convert to the benefits of meditation. “Several years ago, there was no real scientific support for integrating meditation and mindfulness into a depression treatment plan.  Now, there’s a tremendous amount of research supporting its value. There’s not some supernatural reason for doing it; it’s been scientifically proven to mitigate problems associated with mental illness.”

Similarly, for Black, establishing a strict routine was a key step. “There are definitely tendencies in me that are Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Having a set routine is really important in getting me back on track. Relaxation techniques —including hot baths, massage and yoga — have been really beneficial. So too has quality time with my wife and my family and friends. A really important one is not putting myself in risky situations with drinking; surrounding myself with people who will tell me to pull up and go home if things get out of hand. I find that if I drop off in just one of those areas, I instantly get mentally sick.”

All three sportsmen stressed the importance of diet. “Changing the way I eat has been really important,” says Black, who, like Rathbone, now adheres to the Paleo diet [the eating regimen based on lean meat and vegetables that foregoes grains and dairy products]. “I have no gluten, no wheat and no dairy,” he says. “If you eat badly, it can catch up with you in so many ways, including your mental health,” Rathbone says.

“I used evolutionary biology as a starting point, ascertaining how best to eat and challenging conventional wisdom on nutrition. I was wary to start with, because it was so different to how I’d eaten as a professional athlete, which was a diet very high in carbohydrates. I tried it for 30 days, lost 8kg and, by the end of month two, felt better across the board, from a physical and mental perspective.”

Watson, who split from his wife shortly after their wedding in 2008, has developed a business that assists athletes with the transition into retirement. Like Black, he believes he had to hit rock bottom in order to make sense of his life. “Looking back, coming to terms with my depression was the best thing that could have happened,” says Watson. “It made me totally reassess who I was as an individual with clarity and honesty. I was completely misaligned and fake, with no integrity.”

Rathbone, who recently posted a heartfelt blog detailing his battle with depression, believes Western society remains guilty of  compartmentalising mental health. “There are certain rules that seem to apply to mental health that don’t apply to other things,” he says. “For instance, if someone injures themselves physically, there’s no stigma attached to that. Even with obesity, there’s less of a stigma. But people are still reluctant to talk about mental health because there’s a degree of weakness associated with it.

“Depression for one person is very different to depression for another,” he continues. “You get so many different expressions of depression. And we need to diagnose and treat it and talk about it accordingly.”

Black spends his days talking about it in workshops with the AFLPA, which run in conjunction with the Mental Health Foundation, Headspace. He works closely with club leadership groups and mentors rookies on how to recognise danger signs relating to depression. He implores the youngsters not to make the same mistakes he did — to seek help, to challenge their GP for a correct diagnosis and to be alert for signs that their teammates may be struggling. And he remains vigilant about his own mental illness. “I have to constantly monitor my health,” he says. “If I don’t, I get sick. It’s as simple as that.”

HOW CAN I HELP A MATE WHO HAS DEPRESSION?

Invite him to go for a run or good walk, to join in a Sunday arvo kick-about or hit the gym together. Researchers have found that regular exercise, and the increase in physical fitness that results, alters the levels of serotonin (a chemical in the brain that contributes to a range of functions, including sleep, libido, appetite and mood) and leads to improved mood and feelings of wellbeing. Some research indicates that regular exercise boosts body temperature, which may ease depression by influencing the brain chemicals.

Apart from causing positive changes in the sufferer’s brain activity, exercise also:

  • Boosts self-esteem, because the sufferer takes an active role in his own recovery.
  • Burns up stress chemicals, such as adrenaline, which promotes a more relaxed state of mind.
  • Provides social opportunities, especially with team sports.
  • Distracts from pessimistic and negative thoughts.

The best places to find support and the latest information are:

  • Your doctor
  • Your local community health centre
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • beyondblue: beyondblue.org.au; info line 1300 224 636
  • SANE Australia: sane.org; 1800 187 263 (weekdays)