OPINION: Sports stars who admit to their mental illness are the real winners

Paul Gascoigne has faced well-documented alcohol problems.
Paul Gascoigne has faced well-documented alcohol problems.
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Sport is big business in England, the UK and the world these days. Sometimes, perhaps because there are big financial rewards on offer for those who reach the very top, we forget that the sportsmen and women we either idolise or dislike are human too.

That is why it comes as a surprise when it is revealed that our heroes are not always ecstatic as they live in what we perceive to be their ivory palaces.

Sporting success and riches most of us can only dream of do, it seems, come at a price at times -— the price of depression.

In recent years England’s Test cricket team has had two high-profile cases of batsmen who have struggled with the condition — Marcus Trescothick and Jonathan Trott.

The downfall of mercurial football talent Paul Gascoigne has also been well documented and his depression, along with other issues off the pitch since his international career ended, is touched upon by the player himself on his current theatre tour.

Mental health issues are all too often swept under the carpet, whether it be in sport or everyday life.

So it is refreshing to see high-profile sporting stars open up about their problems.

Hopefully it will encourage people living an ordinary life, not one in the sporting limelight, that they are not alone — and that, as Damon Hill so eloquently puts in his new book, help is available.

Former motor racing world champion Hill has bared his soul in his autobiography, Watching The Wheels, which was published earlier this month.

Hill won the world championship 20 years ago, aged 36, and you might have thought the accomplishment of a dream would have set him up for a lifetime of relative happiness.

Instead, several years later he admits that he fell into a deep depression that required the help of a therapist.

Of course, Hill has had more than his fair share of sadness as his famous father, double world champion Graham, died in a plane crash in 1975. There were also financial issues after his father’s tragic death.

Those financial problems meant he started his working life in jobs such as a labourer and motorbike courier. But, when he then found fame and fortune on the race track to put an end to his financial worries, his demons remained.

Hill charts his fight against depression since he quit racing and on a positive note he went back to his educational studies from almost 40 years earlier to get a degree in English literature with the Open University.

But he admitted that when he stopped racing he suffered a “loss of direction.”

Hill said in an interview with the BBC that he had an identity crisis, having lost the routine of competing as a sportsman for 20 years to try to reach the top of his sport — which, of course, he achieved.

“I didn’t think I was depressed,” he said. “I just thought I was lost.”

His openness and frank words to describe his battles are refreshing and illustrate that our sporting heroes are sometimes more deserving of our empathy and support than we might think — and realisation that they, like us, are human.

Think back a year or so ago to the debate around Jonathan Trott. Despite a Test average of more than 44, he had two absences from first-class cricket because of stress-related illness.

He was criticised by former England captain Michael Vaughan for leaving an Ashes tour in Australia and felt for a time that he wanted to do anything but cricket.

Fortunately, after treatment with Dr Steve Peters he conquered his anxiety and is back playing again for Warwickshire.

Despite his many troubles since a glittering playing career with England Spurs, Paul Gascoigne is in the same situation.

He is currently on a theatre tour telling his own story, from his great days on the pitch — and that goal for England against Scotland, in the European Championships at Wembley — to his battle with mental illness.

The Audience With evenings are a brave attempt by someone described as the most naturally-gifted English midfielder of his generation to explain how and why it all went wrong.