November 17, 2006 11:00pm
AT the precise moment that professional golfer Steve Bowditch was sitting in front of reporters this week to talk about the depression which had almost ruined his life, Test cricketer Marcus Trescothick was flying home to England, a shattered man.
And former French rugby union captain Marc Cecillon was preparing to spend the next 20 years in jail, having been found guilty of murdering his wife.
The black dog of depression was on the loose.
There is nothing new about depression among sports stars – swimming star Petria Thomas recently revealed she had attempted suicide as "a cry for help" just three months before winning gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.
What is new is that the crippling condition that has haunted so many great athletes over the years has finally been recognised and given a name.
Sports psychologist Phil Jauncey gave a general definition of depression as "a state where a person has no energy to go forward and only wants to stop". It can be caused by many things, but Jauncey believes athletes are less susceptible to the condition than non-athletes.
"The difference is that athletes get publicity," he says.
Which can be a good thing, as it helps non-celebrity sufferers see that no one is immune.
When news of Trescothick's collapse reached the media on Wednesday, one caller to radio station 4BC rejected talk of depression. It was simple human weakness, he said. Trescothick had seen the quality of the Australian bowlers and turned tail and ran.
It is that kind of attitude that has created such a stigma around depression and added to the pressure on those who suffer – especially athletes who are supposed to be bigger, stronger and, well, just better than the rest of us. Real men don't admit to weakness, the theory is. Especially of the mental kind.
AFL player Wayne Schwass battled depression in silence for 14 years. He played more than 280 matches for North Melbourne and Sydney and won a premiership, but his biggest fear was people finding out he was sick.
"I chose not to come forward because of the tremendous amount of shame that comes with admitting you have a mental illness," Schwass said.
"I lived in fear of my illness becoming public knowledge. I played a man's game where it was win at all costs. Only the strong survived. The weak were left behind. You were always encouraged not to show you were hurt.
"I carried this secret with me but at a great personal cost.
On the surface, I played the game and behaved the same. But internally, I was struggling, really struggling not just to play but to survive."
Schwass now heads the Sunrise Foundation, which offers support to elite athletes with depression. One of the people he has worked with successfully is Kangaroos AFL player Nathan Thompson, who has turned his career around in the past two years.
Not everyone has been as lucky. Former rugby league player Peter Jackson, whose depression is believed to have been exacerbated by a traumatic sexual assault suffered as a schoolboy, died of a drug overdose in 1997.
During his playing days, Jackson had been the ultimate life and soul of the party. The fact that he sank so deeply into depression after his retirement was not unusual, according to sports psychologist Noel Blundell.
"The camaraderie of the team environment is very important in these sort of cases," Dr Blundell said.
"When the depressed person moves out of the closeness of the team they feel they lack that level of support. Even if the immediate family is providing enormous support it will not fulfil the perceived level of closeness the team environment provides."
It was the lack of that team camaraderie and support that drove French rugby captain Cecillon to depression and alcoholism, he said at his recent trial for murder.
Of course, not all athletes with depression face their darkest days after they have left the spotlight. Some, like Bowditch and Trescothick, must find a way to cope, day after day, while trying to perform at the highest level.
For Bowditch, who was diagnosed with depression last year, that has proved easier said than done. This week he told reporters a harrowing tale of 13 consecutive nights without sleep, and just as many missed cuts on the US PGA Tour.