Like Naomi Osaka, more and more athletes are publicly talking about their depression, the word long silenced in a world where wounds to the soul are often seen as a weakness.
Even if it is still rare in sport, speech is starting to free itself. Japanese Naomi Osaka isn’t the first to talk about depression. But her status as a quadruple winner of a Grand Slam, and her aura offer a particular resonance to this evil which also strikes athletes.
The ex-world No. 1 explained that she experienced long periods of depression after her victory at the US Open in 2018. One of the reasons which, according to her, led her to decide not to come to press conferences this year at Roland Garros, without it being heard by the organizers.
It has added to a list of prestigious athletes who have admitted to having experienced slack periods, such as swimmers Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, cyclist Tom Dumoulin or even tennis player Nick Kyrgios. Stars who hide a large number of more anonymous athletes, who have also experienced depressive episodes during their career.
– “Suicides” –
“Depression is a word which has a pejorative connotation and which is poorly understood by the population”, explains Professor Philippe Godin, sports psychologist at the University of Louvain in Belgium.
“In sport, you have to be strong, show that you are strong, almost invisible. So it is not compatible with a weakness”, he assures to explain the silence which prevailed on the question during decades.
Ailments of the soul also strike athletes, from anxiety attacks to behavioral disorders, even to severe depressive episodes.
“There are even suicides”, like the one in March 2019, at 23, by Kelly Catlin, the triple world champion track pursuit cyclist and silver medalist at the Rio Olympics, recalls Yannick Boulanghien, therapist in the sport. “The athlete is not more fragile or more solid than Mr. or Mrs. Durand. There are many external factors, the exposure, the stake, which put under pressure,” he explains.
What has changed in recent years, with some pioneers who have paved the way like Andre Agassi for example, is that some are taking this step of verbalization.
“It was about time!”, Breathes Meriem Salvi, psychologist who deals in particular with Teddy Riner. “I have been in the middle for thirty years and trying to remind people that athletes have emotions like everyone else.”
“But it’s still complicated to diagnose depression in a champion. They have a pretty impressive ability to mask,” she says.
The organizations which manage these high-level sportswomen and sportswomen sometimes do not have the weapons, either to identify the problem, or to respond to it.
“The major authorities have not done what there was to do. They are hundreds of light years away from understanding. They have other contingencies to settle, financial and material,” says Philippe Godin.
– Indented –
However, care for the mental health of athletes has evolved over the past twenty years. Structures like Insep (National Institute of Sport for Expertise and Performance) in France have embraced this movement, by expanding their team of psychologists, for example.
“We have more and more requests for support from athletes on a double dimension: psychological and performance support,” Anaëlle Malberbe, one of the five psychologists at Insep, told AFP in December.
However, this monitoring does not exist everywhere. Certain countries or certain sports are still very far behind.
“Twenty years ago, when I spoke about that in the congresses, no one listened to me at all. Things have changed. Today I would say that 10% of the sports population is committed to the idea that a follow-up psychological, it’s interesting, ”adds Phlippe Godin.
“We need psychological support for the champions, not just mental preparation, which has nothing to do with”, insists Meriem Salvi. There is still a long way to go …