How can you tell when someone is suffering from mental frailties? The human mind is difficult to read, even when it’s our own. Body language gives a clue to someone’s emotions, however will never tell the whole story. Even if you’ve known a person for many years, subtle changes can mean any alteration in mindset becomes difficult to spot.
“It’s often very hard to pick up on any signs, however, it’s important to look out for uncharacteristic behaviour patterns.” Russell Discombe explains: “So players losing their temper, suddenly being more introverted, taking the easy way out of situations (e.g. fitness drills or gym work etc.).
“I think it is more noticeable to staff and players who know the individual well than it is to an outsider or the media.”
For the last five years, Russell, a lecturer at the University of Winchester, has worked as an applied performance psychologist at a professional cricket academy, as well as playing and coaching the sport. He’s contemplating how to notice if someone is struggling with mental illness. The behavioural patterns are the clearest sign, although, they usually come after the illness has manifested.
Russell likes to nip it in the bud before then: “We monitor all athletes on numerous occasions throughout the year using mental health questionnaires in order to try and highlight early if there are potential issues. If any issues are flagged then the psychologists will have a conversation. If these issues are deemed clinical, then the athlete is referred to a clinical psychologist.”
The questionnaires that Russell uses are called PHQ9 and GAD7. Both are similar forms that ask the participant to look back over their last two weeks and ask themselves a series of questions based on their anxiety levels in that period. The forms become quite personal, with enquiries such as ‘How often have you been bothered by thoughts that you would be better off dead?’
People can answer “not at all”, “several days”, “more than half the days” or “nearly every day” with scores nought, one, two and three applied to each individually. Based on the score, the form recommends action ranging from support to seeing a clinical practitioner.
That last step is particularly crucial for Russell: “I believe it is important that the athlete sees a qualified clinical practitioner rather than a coach, sports scientist or even a sports psychologist.” Russell explains that as a psychologist he knows he is not properly equipped to be dealing with mental illnesses such as depression.
Over recent years, English cricket has seen a handful of high-profile stars pulling out of England tours due to struggles with their mental health.
Despite this, former England opener Graeme Fowler believes the sport is doing more than others. During a BBC radio discussion on depression, which Fowler himself lives with, he said: “Cricket encourages people to be open, honest and to deal with it. A lot of other sports don’t really acknowledge it, they are frightened and it’s easier to shove it in a cupboard.”
Nevertheless, can the ECB do more to help prevent that number rising?
Russell thinks so: “They should introduce mandatory Mental Health Screening at all county and minor counties. This could be something as simple as getting players to complete a five-minute online survey twice a year. While this is obviously not ideal, if it helps one person then it will be beneficial.” He says that this should be a “centralised minimum requirement” rather than the current system of deciding who to screen and when.
Of course, it is worth noting that this wouldn’t have a 100% success rate. Currently, players might not be as honest as they should be because they don’t want to admit issues, or maybe they can’t recognise signs, as Russell believes cricket has an image problem concerning depression.
“There is definitely still a stigma attached to mental illness.” He tells me. And how do we lift that? “We need to keep educating athletes and the general public about the issues. Encouraging more athletes who have suffered from these issues to talk about their problems publically will definitely help this process and help people suffering from these problems. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
“We need to move away from the sentiment of ‘Just get on with it…things will get better’ or ‘Stay calm and carry on’.”
Russell believes the reason these issues have only just begun appearing in the public eye is because of “the traditional ‘old school’ attitude of suck it up and stop being so weak”.
A perfect example of this attitude was found when England spinner Michael Yardy left the 2011 World Cup due to his struggles with depression. Concerning the issue, former England opener Geoffrey Boycott went on radio and declared that Yardy was a liability, and clearly not good enough for that level, implying matters were cricket-related and not health orientated. More than that, Boycott used menial words such as “upset”, highlighting a severe lack of understanding of the illness.
Over recent years, the situation has improved – mainly because of honest and chilling books by Marcus Trescothick, Fowler and most recently, Yardy. All detail their battles in an open and refreshing manner, lifting some of the myths associated with depression.
In all of their cases, they found help too late. For all of them, their international careers were effectively over. Nevertheless, Russell firmly believes that a cricketer can be open about his or her struggles and still have a fruitful career at the highest level: “If people deal with the issues correctly then there is no reason why they can’t continue to have a long successful career.”
The theme throughout our chat on how to help cricketers revolves around the importance of seeking help early. For any youngster beginning in the sport who might be struggling, Russell recommends finding a professional to listen as soon as possible, adding: “Admitting that you have a problem takes guts and shows how tough you are.”
As the years go on, it should become easier for cricketers to find a safe environment in which to discuss such issues. Every professional side travels with a full-time sports scientist these days, although in Russell’s experience these are more “physiology based rather than psychology based”.
While he says the sports scientists are helping to improve the game, and making athletes mentally tougher, he stresses they should never be used for clinical help. His message is the same, when in doubt seek a clinical practitioner rather than anyone else.
But then, like all things, there is always more than one way to help someone. For example, cricketers have used hypnosis and holistic therapies in the past as ways to de-stress and release negatives. Yet even then, as Russell confirms, having a chat with someone you trust and value, and eventually a psychologist, is the best way to find the optimal method of help for the individual.
To say that the first step is the hardest, and that the first step is admitting you have a problem is both a cliché and not. For matters revolving around depression, it’s obvious from my chat with Russell that even a small change in mental well-being can signify something more serious.
If you’re reading this and think you can relate to some of the emotions and experiences detailed here, Russell recommends that you seek professional help as quick as you can. But above all else, Russell stresses that you shouldn’t be ashamed about your problems – you are not alone; a lot of people have suffered what you’re experiencing.