Today, one of Australia’s most liked professional sportsmen, Harry O’Brien of the Collingwood Magpies AFL team, spoke to the media about his battle with depression, suicidal thoughts, past sexual abuse, and a number of other emotional and mental struggles. Because he’s a good guy with a strong social conscience who spends a lot of his spare time and influence helping others, it seems like the media are going to give him a fair go and allow him the time and space he needs to recover. In theory. (The widespread coverage of it today suggests otherwise, but we will see what happens.)
harry o’brien. credit: quinn rooney [source]
It seems like his club are supporting him as well, following emotional outbursts that saw him falling out with coach Nathan Buckley. I was extremely concerned about this statement in an ABC News articles today, though:
Collingwood demanded O’Brien return to the club today and has reportedly told the player he has to keep any emotional outbursts in check.
I really hope that’s just the reporter choosing his words poorly, and not the actual case.
O’Brien’s “good guy” status will hopefully help him here. It seems that the media have much more respect for athletes that they think are “good guys” than those that they perceive to be degenerates. (It explains why Ben Cousins got absolutely lambasted by the media for his drug problem and mental health issues, and why Brendan Fevola’s gambling addiction proved to be little more than a side note in a career of controversy, but why Jobe Watson has barely been chastised following his admission of taking a banned substance, and why The Buddy Rule is one of the most talked about – and most pushed under the rug – controversies in Australian sport (and it doesn’t just apply to Mr Franklin). Apologies to anyone not from Australia, or anyone who doesn’t give a toss about AFL, because you won’t know those names.)
I follow Harry O, as he’s affectionately known, on Twitter, and he does genuinely seem like a pretty awesome dude, so this post is nothing against him. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t know Harry from a bar of soap, but when I woke up this morning (*cough*afternoon*cough*) and saw the headlines, my heart and stomach swelled with pride and sorrow.
Mental health issues are terrifying. Not just for the individual, but for the community. We still don’t know how to deal with people who have mental health issues – must less those that acknowledge them publicly. Owning up to being depressed, suicidal, bipolar, or anxious puts the individual in a position of incredibly vulnerability, because mood disorders and mental health are still taboo topics. For Harry O to publicly talk about his battles – something that he obviously felt he had to do, given his status as a public figure (before people began asking questions about the real reason for his absence from the field last week–questions that inevitably lead to assumptions of drug use in this sport) – would have taken immeasurable courage.
“The public” (and I use that term generally, acknowledging that there are many people that make up “the public” who do not feel this way) still tend to be scared of depression, or to make a joke about it. There’s a tendency to think that everyone who is depressed is a teenager, or a goth, or pathetic, or out of control, or just not strong enough.
Guess what, everyone?
It’s not like that at all. Depression affects people from all walks of life in ways that anyone who has never experienced it first-hand could only begin to imagine.
For about the past year, I’ve made the decision to be very open about my depression, how it emerged, and how it manifests on a day-to-day basis. I haven’t written about it a lot here for a variety of reasons, although my drafts folder is full of unpublished posts about my mental state. Friends are often surprised that I talk so candidly about the fact that I live and breathe depression every single day of my life. Yep, I’m on medication. I’m on a quarter the dose that I was a year ago, and yep, I’m getting better. Am I cured? No. I don’t think I ever will be. I believe that depression is something that I will have for the rest of my life, and I don’t believe I should be ashamed about that.
My life is full of many wonderful things. I have a great family and, although I have chosen not to have a lot of friends, those that I do have inspire and challenge me to be a better version of myself. I have my health, my intelligence, and my ambition. I’m social and (I think) interesting and full of dreams. I look normal (totally acknowledging that there is no “normal”, btw), talk like a normal person, like doing the same things as most other people. I love music and art and reading and learning and keeping fit.
And, sometimes, very occasionally, I believe that life is just too much, and think about ending it.
This is an impulse that I can’t control. That’s why I take antidepressants. That’s why I spend a lot of time reading material online and in books that makes me feel better–not self-help books, but articles and books about the issues that cause me the most anxiety. I read a lot about fat acceptance, perfectionism, the experience of being an academic, fitness, and mental health, particularly those written by people that have experienced their own struggles. I’m not interested in wishy-washy, candy-coated self help nonsense, but I have all the time in the world for no-bullshit, “sometimes the world is a fucking nasty place and the people in it suck” accounts of the world around me, because they help me to gain perspective on my own situation. Reading is my therapy. There has also been actual therapy, but it’s not right for me at this very moment in time.
The thing is, I’m not crazy. I joke sometimes that I am, but I’m not. I’m certainly far too introspective and self aware and prone to worry, but I work every day of my life to channel my anxieties and my internal negativity into something good, something productive. I refuse to be ashamed of the fact that this is who I am.
I’m proud of Harry because although I can only understand a fraction of what he’s going through, the fact that he has gone public about his struggle places another stone on the path to breaking down the stigma about mental health. People need to see public figures acknowledging the existence of this condition. Earlier this year, Stephen Fry (my love) revealed that he tried to kill himself last year. Stephen Fry! Undeniably the coolest guy in the world, top of my list for dream dinner party invitees, and publicly bipolar.
My point is that if mental illness and mood disorders are something faced by Harry O’Brien and Stephen Fry and, heck, me, there is a good chance that people you know are affected too. My own experience of going public about my depression has been that people are still really quite shocked when you do. There’s this perception that anyone who takes antidepressants or other mood-altering medication has either been misdiagnosed (because doctors are prone to overprescribing anti-Ds, apparently), is a fragile flower on the verge of self-destruction, or is bonkers bat-shit crazy, but it’s just not the case. If your employee or coworker or friend or relative has a mental illness or mood disorder, they’re still who they always were. They’ve just come out as suffering – that’s the only difference. It doesn’t mean they’re less capable of working hard or less rational or more likely to dive off the deep end, but it does mean that there’s this other part of them that needs to be acknowledged and respected because it’s fucking terrifying living as a person who sometimes feels like they can’t control the negativity in their own mind.