When James DeGale won his IBF Super-middleweight title in Boston last month, he became the first British fighter to win both an Olympic Gold Medal and a World title in boxing. Amidst the fanfare and celebrations, DeGale took a quiet moment to dedicate the win to the late Darren Sutherland.
The pair had developed a rivalry in the amateur ranks, fighting each other no less than six times, culminating in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing where DeGale won gold in the middleweight division; Sutherland took the Bronze that year.
Both fighters turned professional towards the end of 2008 and a promising career was believed to lie ahead for them. Tragedy struck in 2009 when Darren Sutherland took his own life. He was twenty-seven.
An inquest into his death in 2012 revealed that three days before he died he was anxious and worried about his career. Sutherland was described by those who worked with him professionally as having lost confidence in his boxing ability and worried that if he gave up the sport he would owe vast amounts of money to his promoter; Kellie Maloney, then known as Frank Maloney.
The death of Darren Sutherland was a tragic affair and further highlights that despite the glitz and glamour of professional sports, athletes are not immune from mental health issues. The sometimes taboo subject affects everyone but it acutely affects the male population (suicide is the single biggest cause of death for men aged 20-45 in the UK).
Increasingly, elite male athletes such as Frank Bruno, Stan Collymore, Neill Lennon and Marcos Trescothick have spoken publicly about their own mental health. This is vitally important in breaking down the stigma of mental health.
Despite this Mental Health remains a taboo with men. In the UK women are more likely to be treated for a mental health problem, because it is felt that when asked they will disclose the symptoms. In contrast, men are more likely to develop drug and alcohol problems than women and suicide remains prevalent in men.
There are many reasons why men don’t talk about the issues that affect them; it’s the fear of being portrayed as weak, not trusting someone enough to share something intimate, learned behaviour, a narrow definition of masculinity and what it means to be man.
Elite athletes are no exception to this either, carrying all these issues as well as facing pressure to deliver results in the media spotlight. Whilst they operate within the sporting arena the anxieties they face are no different to any other workplace. They worry about results, about injuries, about what they do when they retire, as well as dealing with the emotional highs and lows of a career in professional sports. It is vital that managers, agents, clubs and those supporting individuals do their best to help them maintain positive mental health and well-being.
There are positive steps being taken to address mental health in sport. In the UK, former premiership footballer Clarke Carlisle, who attempted to take his own life in 2014, is spearheading the government’s Mental Health Charter for Sports and Recreation which is signing sporting bodies from the likes of Football, Rugby, Tennis and Horseracing up to the commitment to remove the stigma of mental health from sport.
The German Football Association has also set up a foundation in memory of the late Robert Enke, the German goal keeper who committed suicide in 2009. The foundation in his memory will primarily deal with the mental wellbeing of players.
Sport holds such a strong fascination with the public, we marvel at the extraordinary feats our sporting heroes achieve time and time again. We live vicariously through their achievements because it raises our hopes and aspirations to see an individual scale the heights of greatness. Men in particular define themselves by their sporting heroes. Yet do we ever consider that underneath it all they might be just like us? Sometimes scared, sometimes anxious, hoping for the best from life? Do we ever even stop and imagine life in someone else’s shoes?
Men’s Health Week 2015 takes place all this week, it is essential that men take the time to do something for their own mental health. Talk about any concerns or feelings you have with a trusted friend or loved one, reach out and be supportive to a male friend who needs someone to listen to them. It’s good, it’s important, it’s what real men do and it just may save a life.