January 11, 2012

Andrew Flintoff silhouetteTime to Change asked me to review Andrew Flintoff’s ‘The Hidden Side of Sport’ - a documentary to be aired at 10.45pm, Wednesday 11th Jan on BBC1. What a fantastic film! 

I didn’t know that Andrew Flintoff had experienced depression until I watched it. The documentary captures moments of paralysing self doubt, anxiety and unhappiness for Freddie. And I was surprised – how could someone as strong as Flintoff, someone so larger-than-life, so robust and charismatic feel that low?

It was an odd view for me; I should know that it can happen to anyone. I was professionally successful, robust and outgoing, until I had a breakdown in October 2009. I was a keen sportsman, and had run a half marathon three days earlier. And then it fell apart.

Flintoff was one of the heroes of England’s Ashes success in 2005. Caricatured in the media as a cricketing Falstaff, he was a giant, carousing, risk-taking player, who often seemed to achieve success through sheer personality and determination.

In this documentary he tries to understand more about his mental health experiences

In this documentary he tries to understand more about his mental health experiences, and the impact of international sport, by talking to fellow athletes who have experienced depression. He interviews people who have achieved the pinnacle of their profession, including former snooker World Champion Graeme Dott, boxer Ricky Hatton, fellow England cricketer Steve Harmison.

They’re all incredibly open and candid about their experiences, explaining how their problems made them feel, and the impact on their lives. Vinnie Jones is particularly revealing, as he felt so differently from the professional hard man image he projected. He talks about feeling suicidal, about planning to take his own life and about how he had to hide his feelings in the dressing room.

Professional athletes... can get injured physically, or ill mentally, just like anyone else

"People playing professional sport, representing their country, have no right to be depressed." That’s a ludicrous view, but until I experienced depression, that’s what I thought. Professional athletes are people, with strengths and weaknesses, and can get injured physically, or ill mentally, just like anyone else. And this comes across really strongly in the film. It’s a powerful, and important, message - because sport and professional athletes have an incredibly high profile in the UK, particularly in 2012.

My breakdown came really suddenly. In retrospect there were warning signs in the few weeks before.  But the first I knew was when I started crying one morning. And I couldn’t stop. It took about an hour before I could set off for work, and then I only made it about 100 yards before I started crying again.

That was the start of the worst six months of my life

That was the start of the worst six months of my life; I couldn’t make the simplest of decisions, like what to eat for lunch, or what socks to wear. The smallest obstacles became a massive source of stress and anxiety. As a result, I found it hard to get out of bed, hard to leave the house. Talking to people and socialising became almost painful. I had suicidal thoughts every day. It was made worse by the shame of having to go to the doctors for sick notes, of having to explain to my boss why I couldn’t come back to work, of friends and family seeing me in such a condition, and knowing the distress I was causing them.

The shame that I felt, the embarrassment at not being ‘strong enough’ is really common, particularly among men. Time to Change have done research into the effects of stigma on people with mental health problems. It showed that for most people, the stigma of mental illness – worrying about what others think, worrying about people judging you, feeling shame at being so weak – often has a larger impact than the mental health problems.

We don’t treat mental health problems in the same way that we do physical injuries

We don’t treat mental health problems in the same way that we do physical injuries, so it becomes a source of shame. No-one feels guilty about saying they have a broken arm or twisted ankle, but mental health carries huge stigma with it. And that’s why documentaries like this are hugely important.

Marcus Trescothick was one of Flintoff’s team mates, another 2005 Ashes cricketer who experienced depression. He’s not featured in this film, but his autobiography includes a brutally frank, raw account of multiple breakdowns and recovery. I read it during my depression. Discovering that someone who I admired, someone who had the mental strength to dominate international sport, felt as low as I did was a real help and source of comfort to me. I didn’t feel so weak and that was an important part of my recovery.

Hopefully Flintoff’s film can help normalise mental health

Hopefully Flintoff’s film can help normalise mental health, get it out in the open, and help people feel able to talk about it. There’s a real momentum within mental health in sport at the moment: Footballer Neil Lennon was interviewed in the film, and experienced depression as a player. As Celtic manager, he’s been able to talk to young players, helping them to think about mental problems as they would a physical injury.

When Michael Yardy returned from the 2011 World Cup with depression, the England Cricket Board felt able to be open about it – Tresothick’s return five years earlier had been blamed on a fictitious virus. Jonny Wilkinson is probably England rugby union’s highest profile player of the last decade and in November disclosed his years experiencing depression, panic attacks, anxiety and self harm.

This kind of honesty and openness can really help make life easier for the millions of people with mental health problems. So encourage people to watch the documentary and try to start the conversation about mental health.

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.