Depression In Sports

Great sporting events bring with them opportunities for celebrating the talents of great athletes. But the stress can be enormous. 

Individuals involved in sport are often people who are fortunate enough to be doing something they love deeply. Yet the alleged suicide of retired Kenyan sprinter Kennedy Ondiek in July 2011 or the death of former Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards and Harambee Stars midfield maestro John Okello “Zangi” many years earlier highlighted the prevailing stigma of mental illness and depression in the world of Kenyan sport. 

Ondiek is alleged to have his taken own life while “Zangi” died tragic dead, found dead a few years after plunging into depressive illness.

While the deaths of these two Kenyan sporting heroes received some media mentions, the impact of their passing away failed to emphasize the need for the sporting fraternity to recognize depression as the serious illness that it is.

Sporting Pressures to Achieve Can Lead to Depressive Illness

In the competitive, “macho” sporting world, the pressure to reach goals and, once having reached them, maintain those high standards, can be extremely stressful.

The expectations of fans that are often unsympathetic to what may be seen as weakness in their heroes, adds to the pressure. Successful sportsmen are seen as fortunate to be rich, successful and doing a job they love.

Depression Seen as Weakness in Sporting World

Not too long ago, leading female boxer, Conjestina Achieng’, was hospitalized at the Mathari Mental Hospital, the media, both mainstream and social were awash with headlines insinuating that she had gone mad. 

While later headlines modified the language, the public vilification of the trailblazing Kenyan boxer, for suffering from an ailment that required psychiatric help was surely no way to treat Conjestina or anyone for that matter.

Changes in Attitude to Depression in Sport

The mood is changing globally. Steps are being taken to encourage athletes to open up about their fears and speak to a medical professional if they are in any doubt about their mental well-being.

These changes have been brought about by sports personalities themselves publicly revealing their struggles with depression.

It is about time that the Kenyan sports fraternity accepts the reality of depression in sport.

Global Sporting Personalities Who Have Suffered From Depression

Brave sportsmen and women have helped to raise the public profile of depression in sport, and in the wider community, by being up-front about their experiences.

• British Athlete Dame Kelly Holmes said that her low self-esteem before her gold-medal win at the Olympic Games in 2004 had led her to cut herself with scissors. She sought help from a doctor and feels that she will never return to that dark place.

• Glasgow Celtic coach, Neil Lennon, suffered years of depression which began in 2000 when he was playing for Leicester City. It was only when he moved to Celtic that the Club doctor diagnosed his problem. His situation was exacerbated because he was threatened with violence for being Catholic. Lennon said that revealing his depressive illness to his own family had been the hardest.

• Closer to home, athletics legend Henry Rono is probably the only Kenyan sports personality to openly admit to have suffered from depression and alcoholism. In the late 1970s Rono was a big draw on the European circuit. In 1978 he broke four tough world records in 81 days and without the aid of pacemakers. His free-flowing, surging style was remarkable for its ease, but its effects were devastating on clock and competition alike. A love for alcohol, naiveté that saw him swindled by promoters contributed to his steady decline, going from grace to grass, even being homeless in the USA, before a long and winding path to recovery in the ensuing years.

Sporting Heroes Raise Public Awareness About Depression

Pressure in sport can be an exhilarating experience and most sports personalities can handle it. But often the pressure exceeds the ability to cope and then comes depression, anxiety, fear of public shame, constant newspaper speculation, and the advice to ‘pull yourself together’. Pressure in sport is excessive and expectations are high. In particular, for young men the male stereotype can be hard to live up to.

Depression is slowly being recognized as an illness, not a weakness. Experienced sporting role models worldwide are helping all sufferers from depression to seek help and recover. It is about time we embraced the same for Kenyan sports personalities. 

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