Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Silence of the Damned – Sports, Asia and the taboo that is Depression

A mental condition characterized by severe feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, typically accompanied by a lack of energy and interest in life. (Depression, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary)
In the last few years, cricket has seen a spate of revelations from former players who have confessed to bouts of depression during their playing days. It all began with former England opener Marcus Trescothick, who opened up in 2008 about his crippling battles with the affliction which would often leave him in tears and shivering with anxiety. Since then, a few other cricketers like Michael Yardy, Tim Ambrose, Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Davies, Shaun Tait, Lou Vincent and Iain O’Brien have come forward to share their personal experiences of dealing with depression as a sportsperson.
Now there have been plenty of articles written recently about depression in cricket, and sports in general. So it is good to see that ignorance and stigma is being replaced with awareness and acceptance in most societies. Players are less afraid these days to open up and share their stories, in the knowledge that it might help others going through the same situation. While they may have been subjected to ridicule in eras gone by,  sportsmen in the present can breathe easier as there is a shifting perception towards the better, among the media and general public. Still, there is one issue that has bothered me with regards to this topic over the last few years.

Why are there no players from the Asian countries coming forward to share any similar experiences they may have had? If you look at the history of depression in sports, you will find that it is littered with examples from Australia, New Zealand, USA and the European countries, but nary a squeak from the Far East. Either, it is possible that Asian sportsmen are not as prone to it when compared to their western counterparts, or that the stigma of suffering from mental illnesses has not truly lifted off from the region yet.
The truth is, while rates of depression in the Asia Pacific region are marginally lower, they are still comparable to western countries. Every year the number of reported cases increase, as more and more people are emboldened to come forward and seek help when they realize that they need it; yet, there is a long way to go for depression to be treated as a mainstream disease.
Let me draw from experience. In the United States, I have encountered people (friends and strangers alike) who are not averse to admitting that they have issues which they can’t sort out by themselves and that they need help. They then seek out this help either professionally or from family and friends. In India, I have rarely seen people (even close friends) admit to any kind of weakness, even if it is very obvious to everyone else.
I discussed this with some of my colleagues and a few elders from my family, and the following are some of the most commonly cited reasons as to why depression is not made as big a deal in the subcontinent, as elsewhere:
  • Asians are mentally stronger and generally not riddled with self-doubt and anxiety
  • Presence of strong social support at home helps to deal effectively in early stages of depression 
  • Unwilling to be stigmatized as ‘crazy’ or be ostracized from rest of society
  • Right from a young age, individuals are told to ‘man up’, to not let down their guard and reveal any insecurities or weakness to others
  • Asians are conservative in nature and prefer to deal with these issues privately
Before I expand on these reasons, let me bring cricket into this. In the international game, players from the subcontinent are subjected to the most scrutiny. Every day their games are dissected in print and online media, their private lives serve as fodder for public consumption and the slightest miss-step on their part can lead to a deluge of outrage and criticism fostered upon them. With so much pressure from all corners, how do they deal with the inevitable stress and not let themselves get sucked into a vortex of anxiety or depression? Why have we not heard of any Asian cricketer stepping up and admitting that they too have suffered from crippling self doubts and battles with inner demons?
In this context, I tried to understand the reasons stated previously.
  • There is no evidence supporting this theory that Asians are mentally superior; it is just something that people would like to believe about themselves. Nothing about the performances of the Asian teams over the years suggest that this is true. It is more likely that the players have learnt to stow away their despondence and abject feelings of hopelessness better than players from other countries.  
  • There is a lot of merit to the idea that a strong social support can help deal with depression. When you have a parent or best friend who is always at hand to help or guide you through tough times, it is unlikely that you will push yourselves into a corner. In Asia, family members are very involved in each other’s lives, sometimes bordering on the intrusive. If an individual shows any sign of deviancy from usual routine, an alert family member or companion will usually notice. Taking the case of cricketers, it is rare to hear of any player who isn’t close to his family or of one who has made it to the top without support from his kin; but what happens once he makes the team? Especially in Asian countries, where there is a cut-throat competition for places in the squad, one needs a strong social support group to navigate the tricky terrain. As much as teams like to give the impression that they are one big family, there will always be a few individuals who can slip through the cracks; the tales of Trescothick and co need to be cautionary. Given the present state of cricket in most Asian countries today, is there anyone confident enough to say that cricketers have strong social support networks within the teams?
  • The fear of being labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘mentally unstable’ is not exclusive to Asians alone; it is an universal phenomenon and only now it is being slowly peeled away in western culture. By the nature of sports, those kinds of labels are career-breakers, and it makes sense why players have been reluctant for so long to come forward and reveal their personal battles. Still, the times are changing and with each passing day, there is growing social acceptance of this genuine medical condition. Will we see any Asian sportsperson in the near future who is willing to confront this issue publicly?
  • Yet another cause which is universal, but definitely more pronounced in Asian cultures. I can personally attest to it and so can many of my friends, who while growing up were never allowed to feel morose for too long, as it was a “sign of weakness and low confidence” in ourselves. ‘Man up’, ‘toughen up’ and ‘stop pitying yourself’ are some of the commonest refrains from elders if they suspected that all was not well. In this kind of background and with this prevalent attitude, which sportsperson would be confident enough to accept that he has a problem?  Read any interview of a cricketer who is fighting for his spot in the team, and you will find that they will talk about loss of form, fitness issues and bad luck; but apart from Gautam Gambhir, not many will mention if they fight with self doubts or issues of insecurity. It’s almost as if you are a cricketer in Asia, mental frailties are supposed to be of a foreign nature. The current environment is all about being confident and aggressive; it is not really conducive for a player to go against the grain in these cases.

  • Finally, dealing with the illness is a matter of individual preference. None of the cricketers who have come forward in the last few years were obligated to reveal their conditions to the public. Yet they did, for a reason. Players like Trescothick, Flintoff and O’Brien have channeled different avenues to talk about their personal battles and spread awareness about the condition, which is proving beneficial in removing the stigma attached to depression and helping individuals with similar experiences to tackle their issues head-on. It is why I believe that if there are any Asian celebrities out there (let alone, sportsmen) who are debilitated by this condition and prefer to deal with it privately, it would be a tremendous boost for mental health awareness in the region if they share their experiences on a public forum. You will never see a public personality shy away from revealing that they have cancer or diabetes, so why the reluctance to help fight a condition that is still very much under-reported and untreated? A lot of causes have been helped over the years by the active participation and promotion of celebrities, thanks to their unique position of influencing public opinion in these matters; in countries like India and Pakistan, who better celebrities than cricketers to help not just their fellow players but their countrymen as well? It may not be an obligation, but you only need to read about the responses to Trescothick’s book and Flintoff’s TV program to understand the value of a player understanding his responsibility.
To summarize, I believe that given the constant pressures, hectic schedules and cut-throat competition for spots that an average Asian cricketer is subjected to, they are as likely, if not more, to suffer from depression as their western counterparts. The present culture and associated stigma might be preventing them from coming forward, but if they do, the benefits outweigh the risks. It not only helps the player to face his condition and effectively counter it; it will also empower the unknown number of people hiding in the shadows – flailing in the dark, ashamed of their affliction and hoping that no one finds out about their ‘mental instability’.
Benny for DieHard Cricket Fans
Follow Benny on Twitter @tracerbullet007

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