Couch Talk 41 with Iain O’Brien

Couch Talk Episode 41 (play)

Guest: Iain O’Brien

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Subash Jayaraman: Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is former New Zealand fast bowler Iain O’Brien, and we will be talking about mental health issues such as anxiety and depression faced by cricketers and other sports persons in general, the support system for the players, and how it is looked upon within the athletic community, and society overall. Welcome to the show, Iain!

Iain O’Brien: G’day mate, how are you doing?

SJ: Doing quite well. So, you are 36 years old, and I read in an interview of yours soon after you came public with it that it was when you were 20 and a student at University that you realized you were experiencing several symptoms associated with depression, but it took about 15 years for you to come out in public and say that you had been battling depression. Did you seek any professional medical help in the intervening 15 years?

IOB: No, no, as you say, I found out what it was when I was about 20. I was sitting in a lecture hall and we had to do presentations on diseases—I think I picked chlamydia—and someone else depression. There was a list up on the board of symptoms, and I ticked off all the boxes, and it was like, “well okay, that sort of explains what’s going on.” That was enough explanation for me, and I didn’t seek any medical help until the middle of last year—July 2011. That was the first time I went to a doctor, and the first time I’d really spoken about what was going on. We had had psychologists travel with us every now and again with the New Zealand team, and I used to speak to him about more sports type stuff, but I could still transfer that into normal life. But in terms of seeking medical help, medication, and counseling and the like, it wasn’t until the middle of last year.

SJ: It takes a lot of courage to admit you have some issues and then seek help—were there any little milestones or stages in these 15 years that eventually pushed you into seeking the professional medical health that you thought you needed?

IOB: I’ve done a few interviews on the subject, and I have to credit the BBC 5 Live documentary they did on depression. They did a follow up, which actually I was a part of, so they did two pieces on it, and I was a follow up in the second one talking about why I went and got help, and it was on the back of listening to the first one. It’s still available to download and it was a great chat, listening to different stories of different cricketers especially, and [other] sports having problems.  That was sort of the catalyst, which set me off, and said to me that it was probably time to go and get some help.

SJ: A few years ago I saw a feature where they were covering mental health issues of different sports people around the world, and one of the findings was that the suicide rate was the highest among ex-cricketers. This was also highlighted in David Firth’s book By His Own Hand—what is it with cricket? Is it the severe mental side of the sport? If you’re a batsmen and you get out you have days to ponder about what you’ve done. Or is it players with mental health symptoms are attracted to cricket? What is it—is it cricket attracts these people or cricket does this to people?

IOB: That was a quote I sort of came up with in one of my initial interviews—is it the people who are drawn to the game, or is it the game that is the catalyst for mental illness? I actually think it’s quite a lot of both. I had a good chat with Ed Cowan—the Australian opening batsman—we had quite a good chat about it, and in regards to cricket it is a game that is a lot of time thinking about your next failure. That sort of sums it up, in that line there, and that’s how a lot of cricketers do actually think. It’s all about when is our next bad inning? When is our next bad day in the park? When is our next terrible bat session out in the middle? We don’t tend to think amazingly positively and I think the guys that do think positively—and there’s a lot out there—they’re the guys that turn into the best players in the world, and then there are the other guys that fight and scrap and struggle. Look, you need all sorts to make up a team and I think those guys that fight and scrap and have their own doubts—a lot of doubts—they become the work-horses of the team.  I think it’s important that we have these strange—if you like, and I include myself in that bracket—these strange people on the teams.

Look, it really is a game of a lot of reflection, and there is a lot of time to think about it. For me as a bowler, I’d bowl an over and me bowling a delivery might take 5 or 6 seconds, and then it’s going to take me 20-30 seconds to get back to the top of my mark. So there’s a lot of thinking time in between deliveries, let alone in between overs, and then while we’re batting, so in terms of thinking time, in terms of over analyzing and eating away at your own head, it’s a game that just opens you right up to real nasty critical analysis of yourself. If you can get past that you have a chance of having some success, and if you can’t get past that cricket becomes very tough. I genuinely think it’s both. The game does attract people that have analytical brains and analytical brains tend to be in people who will suffer with different types of mental illnesses, whether it be depression or anxiety or OCD or whatever, those sort of minds are the ones that I think are more susceptible. But yes, I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of that one. What is the cause and how do we treat it?

SJ: In your case you were 20 when you realized you were having symptoms of that, and then you became an international cricketer, so did that compound the issues you were having? How did the on-field thing feed into what you were already going through?

IOB: Once I started the whole counseling side of me seeking some help I realized I could actually date it back to when I was 15. I was playing cricket back then but it wasn’t a massive part of my life [though] it was a sport I really enjoyed, and then at 20 when I realized what it was, I could put a name on it and sort of park it and deal with it in my own way.  It wasn’t the depression itself—the cricket was perfect for me and the depression and the anxieties especially, because I could just go out and play cricket and that’s when I was most comfortable. I didn’t have to talk to anyone, and I didn’t have to enter into many conversations, and so I could just go out there and bowl, and then in between overs I could go sit on the boundary and have a drink, and it sort of suited me in that regard.  A lot of my depression is brought on by social anxieties and not being able to fit in conversations and find ways of expressing myself in an acceptable way, so cricket was perfect for me. Cricket was a help, and cricket didn’t really affect the depression too much in terms of the results, it wasn’t too bad for me. Admittedly I would love to be able to play cricket and not have some of those issues, but I don’t think it held me back in terms of my cricket—it held me back in other parts of my life which then made playing cricket—because a lot of cricket is spent off the park, so it actually more held me back in off the park activities.

SJ: As an international player you have to travel to different parts of the world to be in environments that you are not familiar with, whereas if you were to be playing in New Zealand it is conditions that you know, people that you know, in areas that you know. Do the problems get aggravated when you travel outside New Zealand?

IOB: It wasn’t the travel. The way stuff manifested for me—the anxiety issues would eat away at my energy levels and that would be part of the reason that would suck me down into some depression holes, if you like. The anxiety of being in group situations, trying to hold conversations, etc., that was the really hard part for me. So whether I was home or away that was part of the hardest thing. Being away was actually probably easier, because I could just hide out in my hotel room a lot more easily. You could turn up to team meetings—you sort of meet in the bar if you’re away—and on a non-playing day we would meet in the bar at 6 o’clock and have a drink and then go and get a meal, but I could sort of sneak away and hang out in my own room and do my own thing, because I wasn’t comfortable in a lot of group situations. Being away was probably a good thing for me. Being in New Zealand I tended to be around a few more people and that meant you enter in to a lot more group situations and conversations, so that was very tough. Look, it shaped me, it’s turned me into a person that now understands a lot more about what makes me tick, so I’m trying to improve on those things and I love traveling, so in terms of being away and having those experiences under my belt, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

SJ: Marcus Trescothick’s issues are well documented, well publicized—whenever he would travel he would have these issues. But those are his issues, and we also saw several other high profile cricketers—Michael Yardy, yourselves included, Lou Vincent, your team mate, Matthew Hoggard, and even Flintoff said, and I quote, “a crippling psychological injury.” What is the support system that exists within an international cricket team to deal with a person that may have such issues, and what was it, especially, for you?

IOB: I can remember going back to 2009 when we traveled to South Africa for a test tour, and we traveled with a psychologist, more known as a sport’s psychologist, Gary Hermansson, and he traveled with us and so even back then—which doesn’t sound like that long ago, but in terms of where we’ve come to it is quite a wee while ago—we traveled with a sports psych guy, and a lot of the guys on the team used him. There was a little—which is changing—there was a little bit of stand off-ish behavior towards him. “Why do you want to see the sports psych guy?” And that was exactly the feeling, “why would you want to go see him? We’re not mental. We’re not bonkers. We’re just trying to play our cricket.” And there was that genuine, “why is he talking to him? Does he have some mental problems?” and there was that stigma attached to it. Part of it, for me, was seeing one of the senior players spend quite a lot of time with Gary, and that was a pretty decent indication that, if you’re getting some help, there might be a chance for me to go and find some stuff out that can help me play cricket better. So I spent a bit of time with him, as I said earlier in this chat, just sports psych stuff, and so even back then there was a structure, but a very loose structure in that regard, and there was a lot of stigma about it.

Now it’s changed a lot in terms of the structures and what people can get and how quickly they can get to it. I had a bit of a meltdown during the early season when I was trying to come back and play for Wellington. I had a really bad night one night and was struggling with a few things and I spoke to our physio in the morning, and by mid-afternoon I had seen a psychiatrist and had a counseling session set up for that evening.  So the structures are in place a lot better now. I can only talk about the New Zealand side of things because I haven’t really dealt with it here, but over there it’s getting a lot better. Of 95 first class cricketers in New Zealand, 22of them have sought some help for stuff along those sorts of lines, whether it’s just been performance based, or whether it’s mental illness based, either way they’ve actually put their hand up and sought some advice from a professional, for some head stuff, for the mental side of their life, again whether it be just sport psych stuff or whether it actually be for the mental health side of it. Over here {in U.K.], I’m pretty sure it would be laid out for you with the stories and the guys who’ve actually put their hand up and said, “yeah, I need some help.” Trescothick blazing a trail for the rest of us to put our hands up, I guess, and say “look, I suffer too,” and that makes it easier for those pathways to become a bit clearer and more quickly dealt with.

SJ: You mentioned 22 out of 95 NZ first class players—I read a report that said something like 20 to 25% of all athletes between the ages of 20 and 35 suffer from some sort of issues…

IOB: I actually really think that virtually all of us suffer with a form of depression at some stage, and what turns it into a genuine mental illness, if you like, is how often, how long, and how deep. How long are the depressive periods, how often, and how far down do you go, and I think that takes you from whether from whether you are suffering from a bit of depression, a big of sadness, a bit out of form, a few problems like that, or whether you actually have some problems. So I think we all deal with it at some stage, but yeah I do think the sportsman, the more critical, the more self-analysis that you do, it can actually drag you down. You’re using up a lot of mental energy, and when you’re using up a lot of mental energy it’s quite a hard one to replace. Along with doing that you don’t tend to sleep, and that’s when you recover, and without the sleep it’s very hard to recover that mental energy, so you then end up in that downward little spiral that takes you to a depressive place. In terms of 25%–look, I think it’s a lot higher.  I think it’s a whole lot higher than that, but maybe in terms of actually being “clinically depressed,” I guess, then you are probably about around there, but also, how many people actually do go and seek some help? I think that number is a lot higher.

SJ: Exactly! That was the point I was arriving at. The number could be higher. The thing is, we’ve seen English cricketers and New Zealand cricketers seek help, be public about it, but we have never heard from someone from the sub-continent, even though the number of players playing cricket is substantially higher as well. You would think there would be a few, for lack of a better word, blazing the trail and seeking help and letting others who have these issues come out as well. Your thoughts on that?

IOB: I’ve given that some thought, and again, like on Twitter, I’ve actually had conversations with people, with Indians, Pakistani, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans saying, “oh well why don’t our guys suffer with this? Our guys don’t have these problems. What is it with you white guys?” Literally, and that’s cool, I’m sweet with that, us white guys we got issues, cool, sweet, but no I do find that interesting and I do see, I really do think it doesn’t discriminate. I don’t think there’s a race barrier to the depression, and the anxieties, and the mental illnesses, I just think if a player say from India came out and said they suffer from a mental illness, I think that would—I don’t know how that would be dealt with. Again, look, when people started coming out and saying they dealt with depression—let’s say John Kirwan, one of the earliest players, an All Black, a winger for the All Blacks, a rugby player, when he came out and said he suffered with depression a long time ago and it was just like, “okay, why are you doing this?”

It was a bit strange, and I think that’s maybe how it would be seen if one of the Indian demi-gods came out and say they suffer.  But you can see it on faces—you can see that there are some problems there. Not saying any of them do, but I think you can see some of the signs, and I think that’s… maybe they are getting great help. Maybe they are getting better help than we get over here [in UK]. Maybe they have better access to it so they don’t feel obliged to put their hand up. But yes, who will be the first one to say, “I suffer with a mental illness. I suffer with a head injury,” if you like. Or maybe they don’t! Maybe there’s some sort of thing in the culture or the upbringing that it isn’t a part of Indian lifestyle. But I think it is. I don’t think it discriminates on any one—age, sex, race, whatever. I think it’s out there, I just… I do think there is a comfortability issue with people on the subcontinent.

SJ: Certainly, I completely agree with you that we are all human beings; we all have our thoughts, our fears, and our darkest fears. Everybody deals with it, and I think logically speaking it makes sense that there would be some that would be dealing with it…

IOB: Maybe that’s a better question for you to answer? How is it—you’ve got to have the same sort of feelings as I do in terms of approaching a situation you’re not sure about, or when you get in a bit of a rut, you still go through those things. So why can’t the cricketers go through those sort of things? Why aren’t they in the same place as every other cricketer in the world?

SJ: I personally have had issues, and I know of other Indians that have had issues—they weren’t cricketers, and neither was I—but as people you have issues. So if there are Indians that have issues, then that means there will be a small section of which are cricketers that have these issues, and in fact they undergo immense pressure, a lot more than the average man probably faces.

IOB: I think that’s part of the big reason why none of them have come forward and said, “I suffer”, because of that pressure. I think it’s that stigma that attached to it in some cultures, in some belief, and even here, in England where I live, or in New Zealand. “You’re mental and you can’t cope with stuff”. I do think it’s due to a large stigma attached to it for players coming out and saying it for the fear of fear being branded “soft”, or “looking for an exit” or “looking for sympathy”, because of the pressure on these guys. The pressure is there and they can’t just come out and say it. What happens then [if they do come out and say it]? How does it work? There are so many guys pushing for that spot in their team.

SJ: Probably there is a lot of society driven suppression of feelings…

IOB: Look, it is not necessary for players to come out and say it. It is necessary for players to seek help if they are. One of the reasons why I came out about it is on the back of the Five Live radiocast, because I heard other people talk about it. I went and got help because I heard those people talk about it. If I can get one more person to go out and seek help from me talking about it, then that’s the result. I know for a fact that three people that have read my story, and have chatted with about it, have got some help. So, that’s a success for me. That’s massive for me. There is at least three more people minimum – hopefully there are more – that could, may be go on and have a better life, and this is why I wanted to do it. That may sound a little bit martyr-ish but that’s not the point. I went and got help because I heard other people talk about it. Hopefully I can be that catalyst for someone else.

Cricketers don’t need to do it. No one needs to do it. But it’s just that people need to know that they can get help. They don’t have to be the person that they are when they are suffering from the mental illness.

SJ: I want to touch upon briefly on the type of structures that may exist in First Class cricket. You were 20 [years old] when you realized you were having depression symptoms. There may be kids playing cricket around the world that may have some illness. So, is it time for the national boards, and regional cricket associations to make it mandatory, where they perform routine evaluations of players so that if there any young people that need help, they can get the attention at an earlier stage?

IOB: I don’t think there should be a mandatory testing or anything like that, because there’s still stigma attached to it. So, if there is a player that needs some help, and there is another with the exact same cricketing abilities that doesn’t need any help with it… well, the one that doesn’t need any help with it is an easier prospect to take forward and pick in a squad. So, I’m not sure that is the right way to go about it but I do want – and I have talked about this quite a bit, I talked to New Zealand Players Association a lot about it – more education and I do want players to know how quickly they can get help, and what the help they can get is.

Every year there is an early season briefing/seminar where the players are told what is expected of them in the regional team, and I’d like to see part of it to be, “Here is the physio/doctor of the team, and we can get you help [if you need]. This is how it works. You don’t have to pay for it. You can seek advice and we can help you out”. I think that’s a better way, to educate the players and leave it to the player to make their mind up, because you can’t force people in to it. It is exactly like any other issue. You can face it only when you want to face it. Educate the players on what help they can get and how fast they can that help, how to get immediate attention and leave it with them. Make sure there is a poster or a sign in the change rooms and in lunchrooms, reminding them. That would be a better way forward, in fact in all sports, in dealing with players with mental illnesses especially.

SJ: Regarding the stigma – There is a lack of awareness that these mental issues are for a large part due to chemical imbalance. You don’t see someone say to a person with diabetes taking their insulin shots, “Suck it up. You don’t need your insulin shots. You’’ be alright” where as for someone dealing with mental illness issues, as you said earlier, may be construed as “soft”. Have you had to deal with any thing of this sort in your experience?

IOB: Well, the way it manifested for me was that I just didn’t talk to anyone. When I am part of the change room, I didn’t enter in to many conversations. I was always afraid of coming across as rude, or say something insensitive or completely stupid. So I was either the spectator or the joker. Neither was that much fun. That wasn’t a great way to be dealing with it.

Now, I’ve lived with it; know more about it and people have started to accept it as a genuine injury and like with all injuries, there is a treatment for it and you can get better. Like how it doesn’t mean you’re not going to tweak your hamstring again, it doesn’t mean you are not going to have relapses. But, it is part of being honest within the change room, and let people know what you are going through and have someone around you that can warn you when you are getting little bit “out of shape” if the injury seems to be coming back. There are a few things that can be done. But it needs to be understood that it is an injury, an imbalance, like having a bad ankle or tweaked hamstring and it is not “drastic”. It can have drastic effects on your life but it is about acknowledging it and going and getting the help.

SJ: Last couple of questions, Iain and then, I’ll let you go.

1)   I’ve read stories and heard from friends that once you get in to the rut, it is hard to come out of it. It is as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel and sometimes, it ends badly. What do you say to someone that is going through this cycle, and does seem to see an end to it?

2)   For the larger audience, what is your message?

IOB: For the first one… Crikey! There is light at the end of the tunnel because we can all remember happy times. Even amongst the junk, the rubbish stuff, the bad times, when the demons are out and playing, we can remember happier times. That is enough to suggest that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But, the big problem with that is actually motivating yourself to go out get some help with it. That becomes the message [as well] that when you are down, when you are having problems, when you are at the basement, people need to know that help can be got and how to go about getting it.

As a sportsman and in an industry that is becoming more aware of these illnesses, getting help is getting a little easier, especially in Cricket. That’s one thing players need to hold on to. There is more awareness and there are pathways to get help quickly and gotten on to. If you are not part of Cricket and are a regular person, you need to know that it is actually not that hard to ring up the doctor and make an appointment.

You are feeling pretty junk. You can’t feel any more junk by going to see the doctor and that’s the big point. If you are feeling like that, it’s probably a good time to go and get looked at, because it can’t really get worse but the motivation to do that, it’s very tough, I think.

That’s where you just have to fake it. There’s an element of that – trying to fake the “happy” mood. Yeah, that can cause some more deeper times but until you can go and get some help, you are gonna have to try and get through it. Try and bluff yourselves in to getting to a doctor. Try to fake a little bit of confidence in getting yourself in there. It’s a tough one.

SJ: And for the wider society itself?

IOB: That’s the problem, isn’t it? The general population… Look, Doctors are great and they know a lot more about it. I can only comment on people I have seen in New Zealand and here in the U.K. There is a lot higher level of awareness of mental illnesses, as it should be. It seems to be a lot more common – and I don’t mean that it is a lot more common than it has ever been – but there are a lot more people seeking help and these numbers will continue to rise. People think, “Yeah, may be I can feel better. May be, I can have a better life. May be who I am right now is not really who I am. May be this is the chemical imbalance that’s making me this way.  I don’t like me this way and other people don’t tend to like me this way.” So may be people need to start hoping when they are in that place.

That’s what I did when I went and got medication. I was so hoping that the person that I was before wasn’t necessarily who I genuinely was. I think, with the medication and the counseling, for me, it has helped me become a better person.

There is no better advertisement for the subject than that. I genuinely feel a better person. In situations where I didn’t feel as comfortable [before], I feel better. I don’t feel amazing but I feel better. I haven’t had a big low period in quite a long time. We still have the highs and lows of life. I am just part of the general, wider population now. Now, I can get an appointment to go see the doctor.

I got an appointment for next week just to have a bit of a check up. Just to have an MOT, get the engine looked at and see if we have to work on anything else, because I still think it’s important. I know the doctor I am gonna see is good. That’s a big part of it as well. We have to trust our GPs. We have to go see whether you have an understanding [with them]. If that GP doesn’t, go and see another one, or another one, and again, you have to bluff it till you find the right person. Because there is more media about it now, you are gonna come across help pretty quickly and I think that’s fantastic.

SJ: Excellent! On that note, Thanks a lot Iain, for coming on the show and sharing your experiences, and I wish you the very best in everything you do.

IOB: It was an absolute pleasure. Cheers, mate!

SJ: Cheers!

[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Missus Couch