■ Former Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli’s admission of mental health issues has reopened debates about highly successful sportspersons’ battles with depression.
■ Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone too had traversed the minefield of depression and anxiety in the rarified atmosphere of celebrities.
■ Two psychologists discuss why successful people are at risk of depression and ways to combat it.
Why sportspersons are at risk of mental health issues
Imran Malik, Assistant Sports Editor
Sports stars appear to have it all, and we think they are living the dream. They have fame, fortune and the love of millions from all over the world. They carry a larger-than-life persona in the public eye, and we tend to look up at them like they are modern-day warriors going into battle on football pitches, tennis courts and participating in Olympics and World Cups.
They become our role models by bravely pushing past obstacles, adversity and often the pain barrier in the pursuit of victory. Bedrooms are plastered wall-to-wall with their faces, however, we tend to forget that these superstar athletes are, in fact, merely people just like us. And that means they are not immune to the stresses that life can throw up.
Sure, these professional athletes do what most of us can only dream of doing, but behind closed doors, many are struggling with their mental health and wrestling with the same complex issues that befall us. Depression is hard to notice — it doesn’t show up like a broken bone in an X-ray — but there are signs such as irritability, low energy and sleeping problems. However, asking for help often carries a stigma because of their stature in society. And it is perceived as a weakness.
Many are told to “snap out of it” or to “man up”. Many try, but they continue to suffer in silence. Bottling up feelings often creates bigger problems, but, fortunately, more and more sportspersons are breaking their silence and seeking help.
The latest superhero of the sports world to remove his red cape and speak about his struggles is Indian batsman Virat Kohli. The 33-year-old says he has fought with mental health throughout his career — not that you would have noticed, for he has built up a reputation for being an aggressive leader on the pitch.
“I personally have experienced times when even in a room full of people who support and love me, I felt alone, and I am sure that this is a feeling that a lot of people can relate to,” he told the Indian Express. “It is definitely a serious issue and as much as we try to be strong at all times, it can tear you apart.”
US gymnast Simone Biles — tipped to be the outstanding medal collector of the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020 — withdrew from the team competition because of mental issues. Her decision brought her a lot of respect.
But Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, who famously withdrew from the 2018 French Open citing social anxiety, failed to gain any admiration. She was fined $15,000 after skipping a press conference due to concerns over her mental health.
Others, from swimmer Michael Phelps to professional basketball player Kevin Love, have spoken publicly about their mental health issues, and there is a long line who have revealed they’re suffering. This may seem hard to believe because exercise is well-known for its positive effects on mental health.
Sadly, athletes do not develop a resistance to this disorder no matter how hard they train, and neither will the average Joe. The focus may be on Kohli right now, but chances are high that we’ll be wishing another elite sportsperson our best very soon…
How Deepika Padukone grappled with depression
Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Assistant Editor – Features
Long before Indian cricketer Virat Kohli revealed his mental health battles, Bollywood A-lister Deepika Padukone had stepped forward in 2015 to discuss her depression and anxiety.
“I woke up one morning just feeling empty … I woke up like feeling directionless. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know what to do, and I had these bouts of feeling so low that I would just start crying at the drop of a hat,” Padukone said in an interview with NDTV.
One of Bollywood’s most recognisable and bankable stars, Padukone refused to present a picture-perfect persona and spoke openly about feeling ‘suicidal’. She said her parents and family supported her during this dark phase. Her mother, who lived in Bangalore, felt something was amiss when she visited her daughter in Mumbai, the epicentre of Bollywood. Padukone reportedly broke down when her mum was set to return from Mumbai, and that episode persuaded her to seek professional help.
Padukone is now a mental health advocate and has launched her foundation LiveLoveLaugh (LLL) to eliminate the stigma around depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. The daughter of former world badminton champion Prakash Padukone also shot down the idea that only successful people suffer from depression.
“The word that best describes my experience of depression is a struggle. Every second was a struggle. I felt exhausted the whole time. People confuse it with being a bit sad. A male star recently said he didn’t have the luxury of being depressed. As if depression is a choice!” clapped back Padukone in an interview with Vogue.
Padukone isn’t alone. Several Bollywood celebrities, including Karan Johar and Shruti Haasan, have opened up about their struggles with depression.
What mental health experts say
Sajila Saseendran, Senior Reporter
Mental health experts refused to specifically comment on Virat Kohli’s statement on grappling with depression and feeling lonely in a room full of people, but they said it reflects general symptoms of a depressive disorder.
It can affect anyone. But people in the limelight face constant scrutiny and criticism and are likely to suffer severe stress. “So, the chances of depression are more,” according to Dr Shaju George, a specialist psychiatrist with Medeor Hospital, Dubai.
Depression as an emotional state experienced momentarily in times of loss and difficulties differs from depressive disorder — a medical disease or syndrome, Dr George said. “Typically, such cases are diagnosed as an episode of depressive disorder rather than momentary depressive feelings,” he added.
Feeling lonely, sad or detached are normal human emotions, said Dr K Arun Kumar, specialist psychiatrist, Aster Clinic, Bur Dubai. “With or without stress, people go through these emotions. But when this is accompanied by persistent sadness, causing an inability to experience pleasure, it can lead to dysfunction in our social, professional and academic life. We call this depression,” he said.
People with depression may feel lonely and isolated, which Kohli alluded to in his interview. “At times, they may self-isolate during the depression. Depression is a state where the person feels alone in his agony. He or she feels helpless, hopeless and worthless. Since people around can’t see anything abnormal, they will never be able to empathise with the person. They may become sympathetic, which is of no use,” Dr George said.
Acknowledging their feelings and talking to loved ones, and seeking help from mental health professionals as early as possible will help the patient recover quickly from depression, Dr Kumar said. This was reiterated by Bollywood stars Deepika Padukone and Anushka Sharma saying it helped them overcome their demons.
Dr George concurred, adding that it is important to stick to professional advice while keeping a realistic timeframe for recovery. “Regular physical exercises, hobbies, proper sleep and food will also help, besides spending quality time with family members,” he added.
As the experts repeatedly said, mental illnesses can afflict anyone, but when a high-profile person opens up about their struggles it gains wider attention. That helps shed more light on the disorder and eliminate social stigma. So just watch out for the warning signs. It may help you or someone around you.