Mental health in sports is in the news asking everyone concerned for greater attention and sensitivity to the issue. In our projections of sportspersons as superstars with extraordinary abilities, we forget to acknowledge that even they are human and for the better part of their lives exposed to tremendous pressure and continuous evaluation and scrutiny on all fronts. With the advent of the information era, our exposure and appetite for sporting events and their stars have grown exponentially and the sports world has reciprocated with a proportionate increase in competition and events. This has resulted in an environment that is not just demanding but also debilitating. Earlier, a sportsperson could choose the competitions he would enter and the ones he would avoid to help him concentrate better on the ones he has chosen to play and also pay attention to his health by not going on overdrive and risk getting hurt. Most of the time, the competitions and the qualifiers, the point system, the rankings, and the contracts are so designed that the players are stretched to the limit. Recently we have had a host of big names coming forward to talk about the toll of sports and the associated pressures on their mental health, players like Ben Strokes, Jonathan Trott, Marcus Trescothick, Sarah Taylor, Andrew Flintoff, and Virat Kohli. This is just from cricket. With consumption of sports at an all-time high, we are left with no option but to find and devise alternate ways to take care of the ones directly affected. Can we form a system through which we can directly address the problem of mental health?
In a world where business ideas are stolen, insider information sought at any cost, undercutting competitors by any means, even illegal, considered a good business strategy, and a burgeoning start-up industry threatening well-entrenched players, in such a scenario why would someone put out a business “big idea” on the OTT platform even before there is a similar start-up or an equivalent business venture in the real world. This is exactly what has happened with the mental health sector. The Indian spy action thriller series, the Family Man, on streaming service Amazon Prime Video, has the protagonist’s wife co-founding a start-up venture that is building an app to address mental health issues. Why can’t an app like this be developed in the real world, in existing apps dealing with sectors of proven high-stress levels? Like sports. Like cricket. Like the Smartcricket.com app. Especially with so many cricketers in recent times reporting to have dealt with mental health issues.
There are no simple answers. What exactly are we talking about here. Let’s look at what we have on the table. The world we have built for ourselves, the rules we have put in place, the corresponding imagery and the reputation associated with the established enterprises, the standards and practices of the medical field, its procedures, the perception of the problem by the masses and the stereotypes that have been formed in popular culture which is also a result of the values that we have come to accept as desirable and worth striving for, all of these make it a seemingly impossible exercise. To navigate through the terrain and develop a product that not only addresses the problem but is also accepted by all the players is a huge task. Let us try and define the problem, which is the first baby step if we have to arrive at any kind of focussed solution. The definition of good mental health is important because that would form our ground zero. It will come as a surprise that this baby step, even in the educated circles, is fiercely contested with no clear headway unless the situation of the patient has reached an extreme leaving no scope of doubt or debate.
When do we say that the person is just in a bad mood? Or that he is merely sulking and needs to just pick himself up and get going. When do we say that the situation is not in the control of the person in question? When do we say that the problem is biological? There are occasions in depression, yes, even in this seemingly harmless condition and perceived by many as just an excuse to do nothing, when the person suffering is rendered immobile physically and can’t even get himself out of the bed. In a Kafkaesque universe, he metamorphoses into a giant bug and is rendered immobile. Thankfully medical science has now treatment that can reverse this problem. That it’s a condition that can be treated biologically almost takes the credit away from the all-powerful mind. In fact, the mind, however strong, if it finds itself in this situation can’t do anything. This is something that our society has not fully understood. Although we have made progress in understanding human behavior. There was a time when children directly became adults. It was a social necessity of a strife-ridden period. The moment things stabilized for the human race we started observing strange behavior among children ready to take up responsibility. Certain defiance which we now know as adolescence, the teenagers were born. We ascribe this behavior in teenagers, now, to their changing biology. There is even a theory that high-stress environments like sports and cutthroat competitive scenarios attract the people who are biologically inclined to have mental health problems and drives them to those occupations. Almost like a death wish. But the jury is still out on this one like most of the other basic definitions.
We don’t have a reasonable definition of sanity because we have defined human excellence in terms of the human mind and its achievements. Naturally, the trials and tribulations that one undergoes stretch the boundaries of sanity and that which we consider normal. We have been celebrating the triumph of mind to be able to overcome any situation however dire as the victory of the human spirit and the excellence of the human mind.
Man and his character have come to be seen as a reflection of his mind. I think therefore I am. The stronger your mind the stronger your will to achieve a particular goal. The triumph of man in the natural order is the triumph of the human mind. Now imagine, in such a scenario, if someone was labeled as a person who has lost his mind, or has lost the faculty to reason or that he has a weak mind, his standing as a human, of any repute, becomes compromised. The very basic dignity of being human is stripped away. This fear was amplified by the way society took care of the mentally disabled in the olden days. The asylums were terrifying and the doctors didn’t seem to know what they were doing except perhaps to isolate the sound from the unsound. The asylums were more like prisons. Seen by those with a sound mind as the end of the world.
In such a reality you can’t blame anyone for pretending that they are fine even when they are not. Statements like, I’m not mad, make more sense than, I need help. It’s primarily this concern among the afflicted which takes the form of mistrust even when it comes to doctors. The anonymous helpline, which is the only realistic way to address problems of suicidal behavior, is a direct result of this. One doesn’t want anyone to know that one is not feeling well mentally. The book, I never promised you a rose garden, by Joanne Greenberg tries to tackle this perception among the masses through the case study of an extremely serious patient, with multiple personality disorder, whom she manages to help. Times have changed. Medical science has been able to achieve breakthroughs. But the perception persists. Joanne Greenberg even attacks the book, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, by Jack Kerouac for its portrayal of doctors in the negative light saying that books like these were harming the cause of mental healthcare. We all know how One flew over the cuckoo’s nest was turned into an iconic film. Jack Nicholson was fabulous and the film won five Academy Awards. Best picture. Best director. Best actor. Best actress. Best adapted screenplay. All the big ones. Why, because we love to see a believable portrayal of a man getting the better of the system. The triumph of the human mind in an impossible situation. It’s hope for the ones feeling trapped and that’s just about everyone.
The rat race, the monotonous never-ending drudgery, the Sisyphean futility of life, are not fantastic fictionalized stories of the common man but an inner craving to break free. Somehow the imagery of the success in our society encapsulates this. At least, this is what is believed. So if you manage to raise your capabilities to the highest level, for instance in sports, you tend to believe that you have earned your freedom. You are now in control of your life. Which is not really the case.
When Jesse Owens became the fastest man in the world by displaying the “Greatest 45 minutes ever in sport” and later going on to win 4 gold medals in the Berlin Olympics, it changed none of his reality. To make things worse people now wanted to see if he can beat a horse in a race and he had to do it to put food on the table. Take the recent instance of Naomi Osaka at Wimbledon. One fails to understand why the Queen can’t go to the media and say, “it’s not happening today folks, the girl doesn’t feel up to it, some other time maybe”. How difficult is that? But it was not to be. It’s primarily because our institutions have a standard to maintain. Excellence is not to be viewed as a flash in the pan but a consistent and expected feature. Commitments can’t ever be broken especially if everything depends upon reputation. There are procedures in place to ensure that the standards are met at every level. And it takes years to build a name, to be known as an organization of repute. You can’t throw all that away to please the whims and fancies of the now-in-the-contention sportsperson.
In similar situations of coming to terms with reality, had there been an outburst of aggression, considered natural in human behavior, the player would have been labeled as the “bad boy” of whatever sport he or she is in. If you go overboard, which happens quite frequently in such cases, the laws will invariably come in between you and your freedom. A sure-fire way to depression.
In such a scenario will you say that it was because the player was biologically inclined to have mental problems. No, we have built our world like this. In the movie, How do you know, Reese Witherspoon asks a psychiatrist, “So I was just wondering if there was one general thing that you’ve found over the years to be generally true in a general way that would help anyone in any situation?” And the psychiatrist replies, “That’s a great question, yes, I would say figure out what you want and learn how to ask for it.” The thing to notice about the statement is that you are advised to find a way to “ASK FOR IT” Can we work our way up from here to all that we want? Even as a society. What can anyone do if the very idea of asking is taboo? The world, it appears, will tell you, in the words of Mario Puzo, to “make them an offer they can’t refuse.” Cèst la vie.