Lou Vincent battles back from depression

Elite sportspeople particularly at risk

Last updated 01:15 10/02/2008

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Lou Vincent might be the most recent elite New Zealand sportsman to succumb to the effects of depression but the question remains: is he just the tip of the iceberg?

The New Zealand batsman withdrew from all cricket late last year as he sought assistance for his condition and, although now back playing for Auckland on the provincial circuit, faces an uncertain period of rehabilitation.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements yesterday warned elite sport in New Zealand with its extreme degrees of pressure and stress was unequivocally a health risk, and top sport was almost certainly awash with undiagnosed depression.

Her concerns follow similar claims from the Australian chairman of Beyondblue, Jeff Kennett, who, in the wake of England batsman Marcus Trescothick's breakdown during the 2006 Ashes series, estimated that up to 15 per cent of elite athletes suffered from the condition.

"I wouldn't like to put a figure on it but I know that the 15 per cent level has been discussed as a possible threshold before," Clements said.

"It's a worry but one of the most positive signs is that there does seem to be more athletes willing to talk about it, and to come out to share their experiences."

Vincent's acknowledgement of his condition followed Trescothick's decline in 2006 and last month's decision from Australian fast bowler Shaun Tait to retire indefinitely, citing extreme mental exhaustion.

Other sports stars to admit depression include All Blacks great John Kirwan, who has fronted hugely successful TV campaigns to draw attention to the condition, league legend Andrew Johns and Australian golfer Steve Bowditch.

Vincent has now returned to the competitive arena and has been in impressive form, blasting 76 off 44 balls in the Twenty20 shootout against Wellington, 58 off 22 balls in the following match against Central Districts, and 72 off 63 balls in last week's State Shield outing against the Firebirds.

However, Clements said there were many factors that made elite sport a fraught environment in terms of depression, not least the extreme tension involved, the often macho-like atmosphere, and a general lack of awareness of the subject matter.

"I think the pressure on our elite sports people is huge not only in the field of play but also out of competition, where they're always in the public eye and the subject of expectation," she said.

"They're not able to easily lead a private life in such a public domain and that can exaggerate the situation. This is something that can affect people in any walk of life but when we know there are inherent levels of extreme pressure and stress [as in elite sport] then we should be even more mindful."

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Clements said there was no doubt elite male athletes suffering from depression could find their testosterone-fuelled industry even more difficult to deal with, especially if they believed they needed to adhere to a certain role.

Former England great Geoff Boycott last week blasted Tait for his decision to step away from competitive cricket, saying: "For me, it shows a lack of character that he's given up. Instead of people saying, 'We wish him well and we hope he comes back', I wish he had shown more commitment and more desire." Said Clements: "If athletes perceive that as the only way to be, then it's a much tougher road for them no doubt.

"I just think we've got to acknowledge that in elite male sport, the athletes involved don't have to conform to some emotionless, macho ideal, and that they're not compelled to hide whatever's going on inside."

Vincent's revelations will come as another blow for New Zealand supporters, following the loss over the past year of Nathan Astle, Hamish Marshall, Craig McMillan, Daryl Tuffey and Shane Bond.

Scott Styris has made himself unavailable for the test side and Stephen Fleming is expected to follow in June.

- Sunday Star Times

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