No one is immune from mental illness, yet there has been a persistent social taboo around mental health. But as awareness regarding the issue is increasing, things are changing. More and more athletes are also coming forward to share their struggles.
Here’s a look at athletes from around the globe who have come forward and spoken about mental health.
The most decorated Olympian in the world with 28 medals to his name, Michael Phelps, has been very vocal about his struggles with depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts in the past.
The US swimmer became a household name after dominating the 2008 Beijing Olympics, winning an unprecedented eight gold medals. However, outside the pool, Phelps struggled. He was pictured smoking marijuana in 2009 and was arrested for a DUI incident in 2014, resulting in a six-month ban from all competitions.
In the HBO Sports documentary, “The Weight of Gold,” Phelps said the DUI left him contemplating if he should “just end it all.” But the swimmer pushed through and now talks a great deal about using therapy.
In 2019, reflecting on his journey, he tweeted: “I struggled with anxiety and depression and questioned whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore. It was when I hit this low that I decided to reach out and ask for the help of a licensed therapist. This decision ultimately helped save my life. You don’t have to wait for things.”
Recently, Phelps spoke out about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his mental health. “I’ll be the first to admit my mental health has been scarier than it’s ever been throughout all of this, so I can’t even imagine what other people are going through,” he said.
“For those who are struggling with mental health, know you’re not alone: There are days where I want to curl up into a ball and sit in the corner. But it’s just taking a little step forward, taking a deep breath from time to time. It really helps.”
Virat Kohli has time and again spoken about his struggles during the harrowing tour of England in 2014. The talismanic Indian skipper said he felt lost and could not speak about it.
“I have gone through a phase in my career. I had felt that it was the end of the world. I just didn’t know what to do and what to say to anyone, how to speak, how to communicate. To be honest, I couldn’t have said that I am not feeling great mentally and I need to get away from the game. Because you never know how that’s taken. You know when you get to the international stage, every player that’s in the squad needs that communication — that ability to speak out,” Kohli had said in a press conference in 2019.
Kohli, who had a disastrous England tour where he registered scores of 1, 8, 25, 0, 39, 28, 0,7, 6 and 20 in five Tests, said he felt like the loneliest guy in the world.
“You just don’t understand how to get over it. That was a phase when I literally couldn’t do anything to overturn things…I felt like I was the loneliest guy in the world.”
The Manchester United and Wales legend is considered one of the best midfielders in the world. However, the winger, in a Telegraph column, revealed that certain elements of the footballer lifestyle impacted poorly on his own mental health.
The 47-year-old has spoken about the fragile nature of top-level football, revealing that he sought the help of a psychiatrist in order to help to adapt to life after Manchester United.
“I have to admit that I never really enjoyed the games. There was too much at stake playing for United. Unless you were 3-0 up with 10 minutes to go you learned that football had a habit of tripping you up. It was never wise to look around and relax and to enjoy the moment.”
Giggs joined United at the tender age of 14 and spent his entire career there. He even temporarily managed the Premier League club and was assistant to Louis van Gaal for two seasons.
“I had a feeling of worthlessness. As a footballer you wonder if your team-mates are looking at you and asking the questions you are asking of yourself. Why can’t he hit a decent pass? Why’s he always injured? What’s wrong with him?” Giggs said.
The United stalwart now proactively shares his journey through the crippling illness.
Glenn Maxwell took a mental health break from cricket in 2019. The flamboyant Australian all-rounder had been battling mild depression and anxiety. Maxwell felt being constantly on the road for the past four to five years had mentally and physically ruined him.
In an interview to ESPNcricinfo, he said, “I was pretty cooked when I decided to take the time off. Big reason why I did take that time away is I was pretty mentally and physically ruined. I think it was eight months on the road, living out of a suitcase and that probably had been going on for four or five years, just constantly on the road and it all just caught up with me at that time.”
He also revealed that he was so exhausted that during the 2019 World Cup he hoped he had broken his arm so he could get a break from international cricket.
“When I got hit, I was angry and a part of me was hoping [my arm] was broken. I was like ‘this is it, I just need a break’… I was thinking about things I could do on the way back to snap it.”
After seeking professional help, Maxwell returned to playing cricket in about a couple of months.
The former England opener was one of the first cricketers who spoke about his mental health problems. Trescothick was at the peak of his career in 2006 when he abruptly announced retirement due to mental health issues. He returned midway from a tour of India. He later revealed that he was struggling with depression.
In an interview with Men’s Health, he opened up about his struggles. “I’d always suffered with being away from home. I remember sitting with the team psychologist before the tour, telling him I didn’t want to go away. Things escalated really quickly when we got out there. I was cooped up in bed for the best part of a week and it got progressively worse to the point where I thought “I’ve got to get out of here and sort out what’s happening to me.”
“I thought I was going to die. And having to deal with that was a nightmare. When it happened again I had much more understanding. I knew I’d feel fine when I got home,” the England international had said.
He later revealed in an interview that his depression is still not over.
The 23-times Grand Slam winning tennis player battled feelings of depression after winning Wimbledon in 2010, following injuries and health difficulties.
“I definitely have not been happy. Especially when I had that second [foot] surgery, I was definitely depressed. I cried all the time. I was miserable to be around,” Williams had said.
Serena also suffered postnatal depression after the birth of her daughter Olympia in 2017. A year later, she took to social media to share her experience.
“Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal.
“I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week–it’s ok–I am, too!!! There’s always tomm!” she wrote in an Instagram post.
Popularly known by his ring name ‘The Rock’, Dwayne Johnson enjoyed an extremely successful career as a professional wrestler in the WWE before heading to Hollywood. However, things weren’t always hunky dory for Johnson, who at the age of 15 witnessed his mother trying to kill herself.
“She got out of the car on Interstate 65 in Nashville and walked into oncoming traffic. Big rigs and cars were swerving out of the way. I grabbed her and pulled her back on the gravel shoulder of the road.”
After that experience, Johnson said he went through bouts of serious depression of his own.
“I reached a point where I didn’t want to do a thing or go anywhere. I was crying constantly,” he said.
However, the actor is now more than happy to share his experience to raise awareness.
“We as men have a tendency to hold all that in which is not healthy, it’s not good. Depression doesn’t discriminate so if my past can help then I’m happy to share,” he said.
Former England cricket team skipper Andrew Flintoff, who played more than 200 international games amassing over 700 runs and snaring 400 wickets, battled depression and alcohol dependence.
Flintoff was the player of the series in the historic 2005 Ashes series at home but admitted that he struggled mentally during the 2006-07 Ashes tour to Australia and drank excessively during the 2007 World Cup.
“The whole time I was on the field and throughout that World Cup all I could think about was that I wanted to retire. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I knew when I got back to my room I couldn’t shut off, which is why I started having a drink. It got to the stage where I was probably drinking more than I should,” Flintoff said in the BBC1 documentary, Freddie Flintoff, Hidden Side of Sport.
The ex-Manchester United defender was regularly praised for his mental toughness and tenacity on the field. However, after his wife’s death post a traumatic battle with cancer, Ferdinand found himself in a “dark place”.
“At the beginning I was drinking a lot at night. I’d come down in the middle of the night and drink too much in the first three or four months. It was a car crash. I was just lucky I had my kids, if I’m honest,” he told The Sun.
A single parent to three children, Rio regularly found himself plagued with anxiety, and even suffered panic attacks as he struggled to get to grips with his family’s new reality.
Rio has now become a huge advocate of mental health awareness and a huge believer in speaking to others rather than bottling up emotions. He has also worked with Heads Together and Prince Harry to raise awareness about mental health.
Seven-time Olympic medallist swimmer Amanda Beard, who is also a former world record holder in the 200-meter breaststroke (long course), wrote about her struggles with depression in her 2012 memoir “In The Water They Can’t See You Cry.” Beard recounts her struggles with self-mutilation, an eating disorder, and depression in the book.
“I would do interviews and have this happy face and talk about how everything is great and I’m having so much fun. But then I would go home and be the exact opposite person. I would be miserable. I would hate myself. I would have this negative loop running through my head,” Beard said.
Beard hopes through her story she can encourage people, especially young athletes, to know their struggles do not make them weaker.
“Know that you’re not alone, there are millions of people across the nation and the world who are experiencing the same things that you are,” Beard said in a 2012 TeamUSA.org interview.
There was a time when Ronda Rousey was considered the best athlete in the whole of combat sports during her prime. The former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion was the undoubted ‘queen’ of UFC until her shock defeat at the hands of Holly Holm in UFC 193. The humiliating defeat sidelined Ronda for over a year, as she tried to overcome a demon of her own.
She showed a lot of courage when a year later she set foot in that octagon opposite Amanda Nunes, but the result was similar, which ultimately forced her to retire from MMA. Though Ronda is still held in high regard as one of the elites of the sport, she revealed that she felt suicidal and battled depression after her defeat against Holly Holm.
“I did a whole lot of crying, isolating myself,” admitted Rousey, “he(Husband Travis Browne) held me and let me cry and it lasted for two years. I couldn’t have done it alone.”
Now, Ronda has enjoyed a second chance at life. She has been widely praised for her performances in the WWE and has been one of their top draw fighters on the roster. She furthered her career in acting as well, featuring in movies like Mile 22, where she portrayed Samantha Snow, an elite CIA operative on an extraction mission in Southeast Asia. She briefly appeared in films Fast and Furious 7 and The Expendables 3. Nevertheless, Rousey’s second shot at life is off to a rousing start.
The 23-year-old has been praised and loved by many for her aggressive play coupled with a calm and matured head on those shoulders, but her recent withdrawal from the 2021 French Open, amidst her battle with mental health-related problems, has sparked widespread debates and drawn attention to this persistent social taboo.
The young Japanese wrote a message on social media citing her mental troubles, that she seeked to avoid the media to protect herself. But after her first-round victory on Sunday, the No. 2 seed boycotted her contractual media obligations. This prompted the French Tennis Federation (FFT) to take a stand on the situation.
French Tennis Federation (FFT) president Gilles Moretton took a seat in the press conference room in Paris on Monday. Dressed neatly in a white shirt and a black blazer, he read out a statement in French, then English and made way for the exit door. A total of 85 words in English and 94 in French, which was less than five minutes. “First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland-Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at our Tournament next year,” he said.
Interestingly, he took no questions from the media joining in virtually – even those inside the room. The irony wasn’t lost on anyone. The coldness of the statement and the lack of empathy on the side of the organising committee speaks volumes about how ignorant they are as human beings, Naomi will fight her battle, she will recover, if not heal from her scars, but we as fans, need to raise our voices, be it Naomi or anyone else, they are humans first, then an athlete.
Nikita and Rahul