Depression: changing the face of sport

By Joseph Sandler

It rests in the shadows of our minds, laying dormant until shaken awake. Its onset is unpredictable with a glut of triggers. Depression, a medical condition characterized by long-lasting feelings of intense sadness and hopelessness, can affect anyone. Recent tragedies of high profile athletes this summer have sparked a much needed debate about the role of concussions in long-term mental illnesses. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26.2 per cent of adults over the age of 18 suffer from diagnosable mental disorders in any given year.

Nineteenth century painter Vincent van Gogh had an incredibly bleak insight into depression before he took his own life: “The sadness will last forever.”

But what are some of the causes? A difficult or traumatic experience, medical conditions, steroid use and narcotics can all generate the onset of depression.

Associate professor of kinesiology David Paskevich said depression is something that all people experience during their lifetime in different levels of severity.

“The unfortunate thing is that everyone is subject to feeling moments of sadness and it can move to clinical if not treated properly,” he said.

According to a Body and Health fact sheet, “it is not something we can ‘get over’ on our own and it is not the result of personal weakness or an inability to cope.”

Paskevich said symptoms of depression often improve with physical activity. Your body uses more oxygen for anaerobic exercise than it can take in, which signals the body to produce endorphins causing you to feel emotionally stimulated.

While exercise can help alleviate depression, suicides of professional athletes this summer show that exercise isn’t a cure-all.

Derek Boogaard, 28, of the New York Rangers died last May of a lethal mix of oxycodone and alcohol. Last month Rick Rypien, 27, of the Winnipeg Jets was found dead in his Coleman, Alberta home after committing suicide. Wade Belak, 35, committed suicide in his Toronto hotel room.

Something all three of these players had in common was their role as enforcers, dishing out heavy hits.

“When you are doing activities, being in better shape acts as a buffer, which can have a logical effect on depression,” said Paskevich. “If you look at what’s happened with concussions lately there is greater understanding. If we don’t teach our athletes how to cope effectively, it can become overwhelming. Sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees.”

Depression is not limited to hockey, although these recent deaths have highlighted the dangers of poor mental health awareness in North American sports. In 2010, Denver Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley lost the battle to depression and American Olympian and 2010 silver medalist freestyle skier Jeret Peterson committed suicide in July.

“The biggest thing, especially with the three deaths in the NHL, is we really need an emphasis on discussing what’s going on, how we can monitor it and make sure we are getting people back to baseline,” said Paskevich.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, NFL running back Ricky Williams emphasized a prevalent philosophy in professional sports. “There’s a physical prejudice in sports. When it’s a broken bone, the teams will do everything in their power to make sure it’s okay. When it’s a broken soul, it’s like weakness.”

Williams said the stigma around depression has prevented those most in need of help from coming forward, suffering a slow and agonizing decline into darkness. Sports psychologists have sprouted on the scene, offering more help to athletes who need it, but Lisa Priebe, registered provisional psychologist from Serenity Now Wellness Centre, said it is not enough.

“The last thing you want to do is be shown as weak and unfortunately there is a stigma still,” she said. “It has improved a lot from the past but it definitely needs more improvement. Especially if you are a university student and there are those added means of stress.”

Injuries play a pivotal role in inciting depression.

According to Science Daily, someone who has endured multiple head injuries is up to four times more likely to experience depression. Players like Rypien, Boogaard and Belak are added to the long list of former athlete suicides, like former Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks tough guy Bob Probert and Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who both sustained multiple concussions.

New research is finally coming to light on the true damage and lasting effects of concussions. After Duerson’s suicide, his brain was donated for research and Boogaard’s family made a similar pledge.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative condition caused by repeated concussions. Patients exhibit symptoms of dementia, aggression, confusion and depression which can appear within months or can remain dormant for decades. Owen Thomas, a junior hockey player at the University of Pennsylvania, whose brain was donated to research after suicide, showed the early stages of CTE.

Concussions have made headlines all summer in lieu of recent tragedies and continued danger of the sport– Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has been sidelined since Jan. 5 with a concussion after taking blows to the head in consecutive games. This initiated the NHL to dole out harsher sentences for such hits.

Concussions are a severe symptom of a greater danger: depression. People need to “start accepting depression as a serious and sometimes fatal illness,” said Michael Landsberg in a TSN article. “We create fake happiness and for that reason sometimes people can’t spot what’s truly happening inside.”

What makes depression so dangerous and devastating is its triggers are unique to every individual. Priebe said what sets off a bout of depression in one individual may not in another.

Professional sports and players’ associations are finally beginning to address the need for a mental health support structure, and more players are beginning to step out of the shadows so they have the proper resources to deal with depression. Major League Baseball has led the way in promoting mental health– all players have to go through psychological evaluations.

“The sad part is sometimes you don’t see the short-term effects,” said Priebe. “After they retire, symptoms come out, but you don’t see it when you are doing it.”

Rypien had taken a few leaves of absence during his six-year tenure with the Vancouver Canucks. Former Calgary Flames player Theoren Fleury, who later addressed his depression in an autobiography, ended up suspended from the NHL in 2003 after being placed in the league’s substance abuse program. It was not until he began talking about his problems that he was able to find peace.

Preibe said resources are beginning to be readily available for athletes, but the stigma around depression still exists and improvements need to be made so that athletes have the right people to turn to.

Paskevich said monitoring is important, and given the recent deaths of professional NHL players, concussions have been a hot topic. He said players need to feel comfortable discussing mental health issues openly.

“It is something that is uncomfortable to talk about, so it’s harder to bring up,” said Paskevich. “If I break my leg, it’s very observable. If you suffer from depression, people can’t see that.”

He said university should be a place where people feel comfortable coming forward.

Depression is dangerous, it is invasive and it can kill– an escape from an unrelenting enemy is difficult to spot and even harder to fight, especially alone.

Depression and suicide in professional sports leagues are a major issue that are just beginning to be addressed. Although studies are still being conducted to find out concussion’s role in mental illnesses, there is no doubt that they cause serious, adverse effects in an individual’s well-being.

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