Numerous accounts of high profile athlete’s suffering from depression have surfaced in recent times. This openness and honesty is both refreshing and healthy as it normalises issues that affects the majority of families at some level in some shape or form. Previously, people suffered in silence, almost ashamed to reveal their reality to the people around them. Truth be told, it is extremely common, normal and most importantly, very treatable! Unfortunately, some still choose to keep their struggles to themselves due to a perceived stigma around mental health and some unfortunately take it to the next level – often a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

The NHS (2010) have diagnosed depression as having at least four of the following feelings for over two weeks.

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Poor concentration
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Sadness and irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Low energy
  • Loss of interest or pleasure
  • Feelings of guilt or low self worth
  • Disturbed sleep or appetite

These problems can become chronic or recurrent and lead to substantial impairments in an individual’s ability to take care of his or her everyday responsibilities as they fall into a place of dis-satisfaction they might never have experienced previously.

Former USA Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps revealed his mental health struggles after retirement while many former premiership footballers have reported to struggle in life since leaving football due to a sense of emptiness and lack of purpose. As we all know, some former well known players ended it all through suicide.

Numerous former greats turn to alcohol and drugs to replace the natural highs they once received off the adulation, adrenalin and dopamine release they received from competing  in front of big crowds. When high performance athletes retire, they often struggle with the monotony of regular daily life, as their sense of self worth and identity is tied too tightly to their athletic identity. Everybody wanted a piece of the athlete but the goldfish bowl doesn’t last forever and many ex premier league soccer players report to be financially broke within 5 years of finishing their playing career. In fact a study has recently revealed that up to 40% of them get divorced within five years of retiring, further adding to their difficulties.

Neil Ruddock revealed his struggles in a recent TV documentary while Irish Internationals, Jason McAteer and Paul McGrath in particular revealed struggles with depression and coping through it all in their respective autobiographies. Former 400m Irish athlete David Gillic also revealed his struggles recently after retiring, while an ex-Arsenal star of the early nineties was reported recently to have fallen on hard times – struggling with addiction and homelessness in London.

The stark reality is that many of these athletes live in a goldfish bowl for much of their adult lives. They are mostly considered to have a high status in society and most would have developed a significantly high level of self esteem through their mastery of sport as they grew through their adolescent years. In professional football,  many are flush with cash and with clubs providing people to service their every whim, (from laundry to buying car insurance), many do not develop the life skills to survive once they leave their sport.

​”Joe Public” tends to be all about “Alan” the athlete but once you are released, you are on your own as “Joe Public” pays homage to the next wave of stars! The ex-player can sometimes feel left out and on their own, often trying to find a new identity outside of sport where they realise that things will never again be like they used to be. Many struggle with this sense of loss of not being involved in sport!

While I would acknowledge that clubs are now more aware of this area, many club chairmen do not fully understand the mental anguish that can develop in elite level athletes that are ill-equipped to deal with the strain of daily life post retirement.

​German goalkeeper Robert Enke ended it all a few years ago as he struggled to cope with depression. Numerous former superstar boxers have died in tragic circumstances as they struggle to live a life without the fame and adulation they received during their careers. We don’t need to look too far in Ireland either as one of our former Olympic medalist boxers died in tragic circumstances while struggling with the black dog. Tyson Fury (Former World Heavy-Weight Champion) also revealed recently that he has had his struggles. He went into a deep spell of depression after losing his world title, gaining a significant amount of weight. He now speaks openly about his experience regularly and now advocates for positive mental health for others like him!

​So how is this linked and what is happening?There is a very strong link between exercise and depression. In fact causes of depression are known to come from

  • Low serotonin levels (Stockmeier, 1997)
  • Past experiences
  • Mourning
  • Underactive or overactive thyroid (Awad, 2000)

​Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter, of which low levels are linked to depression. When the body is engaged in exercise, serotonin is slowly released from the brain and into the body to help muscles relax. Think of how you feel after a long swim!

As sports people transition through their career into a non playing phase either through retirement or injury, they can move from being extremely active to doing very little in a short space of time. They go from releasing significant levels of serotonin regularly to releasing very little and as a result, can become quite depressed.

This release of serotonin also affects the workings of the thyroid gland. If the balance is not right, the thyroid gland may become under-active or over-active. The thyroid gland controls metabolic rate and if it is not working properly, can cause you to experience various symptoms.

If your thyroid gland is overactive, one could feel very speeded up, lose weight and have symptoms similar to mania. If a thyroid is under-active, one might feel sluggish and lethargic, while some can struggle with their weight as diets might not necessarily adjust or align with the reduction in calories burned – many continue to eat like they did when they were training. Some struggle with their appearance, lose their general zest for daily life, much of which can be influenced by poor lifestyle choices. Either way, many just slowly fall into a state of depression and neglect their their bodies as they move away from an active lifestyle. In fact, Simon et al (2006) suggested that you have a 25% greater chance of suffering from anxiety or depression if you get to the stage where you become obese.

Of course, this isn’t exclusive to the famed and rich sporting stars of the past and present and the exercise / serotonin / depression relationship can be a huge factor for any athlete transitioning through their sporting career – through injury or otherwise.

Generally, we know that if exercise is maintained, then there is a much lower risk. In fact one meta-analysis study (Biddle, 2009) revealed that at least 33 clinical studies have identified that regular physical activity has a positive effect on mood and subjective well-being . Stathopoulou & Powers (2006) and Chaouloff (1997) showed that exercise improved psychological and emotional health as it

  • Reduces/alleviates depression, stress and anxiety.
  • Reduces negative mood and enhances positive mood.
  • Enhances self-esteem, confidence and sleep
  • Improves quality of life.
  • Improves social relationships.
  • Increase serotonin levels in the brain

For others, the depression is nothing to do with serotonin. Mourning of a lost loved one or traumatic past experience can also be a significant factor. Some may struggle with the pressure to perform and the constant scrutiny that goes with the nature of social media. Unfortunately, anonymous blogs slating athlete performances are a regular occurrence and some athletes leave themselves open to such scrutiny by engaging with with negative fans through their Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Others struggle with the perception that everyone else is having a blast and enjoying the party scene as old friends and acquaintances post aspects of their social lives online. The nature of a sporting career doesn’t allow as much for such engagement and some athletes struggle with a perceived “fear of missing out” (FOMO) with many wishing they could just live a normal life without the adulation and attention that their sporting success brings.

So what is the moral of the story?

  • Value the fact that your training made you feel good so find a form of exercise you enjoy even if you are not training to be an elite athlete.
  • There are issues that exercise and serotonin release cannot fix. Such issues can normally be alleviated through use of talk therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.
  • No man is an island. Seek help with a professional or talk openly to somebody you trust about how you feel, no matter how bad it is. A problem shared is a problem halved.
  • Educate yourself and prepare yourself as best you can for post career transition.
  • Don’t believe the lie that everybody including your friends is fantastically happy from their posts and pictures in social media – many are just putting on a front!

Please “Share” or “Like” if you find this article interesting………

​It may have an impact on one of your friends that is suffering in silence…….

​​Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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