Witnessing Grant Hackett’s public descent – his altercation with an airline passenger last year, his arrest last week, his public apology to his family and plea for privacy - it is tempting to blame sport. To focus on the difficult transition from being an elite athlete to being something else, as the cause of the problem.
The same applies to the tragic death of Dan Vickerman, a former Wallaby, over the weekend.
In a bid to make sense of it, we reach for the simplest explanation. If not the pressure of sport, how else to explain talented, successful men finding themselves in a world of pain?
The answer is mental illness and there’s nothing simple about it.
Professor Ian Hickie AM, a psychiatrist and prominent mental health campaigner, says the growing awareness of the prevalence of mental illness among sportspeople leads to a mistaken assumption.
“We detect the commonality in these problems. These young men are not in trouble because they are elite sportspeople, they are in trouble because a lot of Australians are in trouble,” he says. “What’s happening to these men isn’t exceptional…it’s just that these people are known so we are hearing about it. It’s the tip of the iceberg.”
And it’s deadly. Officially, 19,995 Australian men took their own lives in the decade between 2004 and 2014. That’s five men every day. Professor Hickie says the number would be even higher if it also included the number of male deaths by misadventure - which are not classified as suicide but are in some instances a result of mental illness.
It is a crisis that is widely misunderstood. Professor Hickie says the continued disbelief that anyone who is “successful” could ever end their life is proof of the disconnect between the reality of mental illness and the perception of it.
“Mental health is not simplistic and rational – people who think that way haven’t experienced anything like it,” he says. “The consequences of choosing suicide are so dramatic that we struggle to understand it.”
This is why some bystanders can be inclined to view suicide as selfish – when in reality Hickie says the opposite is true.
“[These men] are wanting to relieve the distress for others,” Professor Hickie says. “Their genuine belief – although it is wrong – is that people will be better off without them.”
Despite the grim statistics, Hickie is optimistic; with more open, public discussion, greater nuanced understanding and investment in support services, he says we can reduce the death toll.
One of the keys, he says, is technology. When it comes to the moment of acute need, technology can help avert tragedy. Hickie recalls a male patient in his 60s who came to him last year who very nearly didn’t make it to his appointment.
"He was up at 3am in a bad way but he got on the internet and started doing something."Professor Ian Hickie
“He was up at 3am in a bad way but he got on the internet and started doing something. He said ‘That saved my life’,” Hickie says. “What does a man do at 2am in the morning when they are on their own in that state? They will use technology. If they can access some degree of contact or support in that moment they might not take the other action and that is the critical issue.”
Hickie adds that the conversation about mental illness in Australia has come forward in leaps and bounds in the past two decades but there is still stigma around it that is stifling.
“Not discussing the pathway to death doesn’t allow us to respond to the particular situation and have a more frank discussion about what needs to happen,” Professor Hickie says. “Many of us would say is it leads to the underinvestment in this area.” The cost of that underinvestment is deadly.
DO YOU NEED HELP?
If a person you know seems to be struggling, reaching out and showing them that you care, could make a huge difference in their life. It can be difficult and daunting to have a conversation with someone when you are worried about them but it is well worth trying. There is some practical advice about how to start that conversation here and here.
Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 www.mensline.org.au