Amongst the many social media posts and website articles highlighting yesterday’s World Mental Health Day was a BBC interview with Helen Richardson-Walsh.
To anyone who is a keen follower of elite women’s sport, Helen will need no introduction; but just in case her name is unfamiliar, she was a member of the Team GB women’s hockey squad that produced the greatest team performance I have ever seen in any sport at any Olympic Games to claim gold in Rio last year.
Words such as belief, courage, skill, and determination barely do justice to this group of athletes. Hollie Webb’s decisive penalty and the celebrations that followed moved me to tears—and just over a year later Helen’s words elicited the same response.
Speaking about a spell of depression in 2008 and a blog she wrote following back surgery in 2014, Helen said: “With me knowing myself and being really aware of my weak points, I thought that the blog would be a vehicle to be a bit more open, certainly with my team-mates.
"I think having suffered with depression back in 2008, which I don't think I ever really properly dealt with, it was almost inevitable that it would go back there. I was—and I can describe it in the same way lots of people do—in a really dark place. I was really emotional and not able to get out of that. Waking up in the morning and feeling like; what was the point of anything, not wanting to get out of bed, that kind of thing. I knew that I needed to seek help in that moment.
"For me, when things aren't going well, I want to isolate myself. That blog was a way of me trying not to do that, to almost front it up and try to deal with it in the best way I could. In 2014, I was injured, so there was something wrong that people could pin it on. I guess I don't think I did really hide it that well. Whereas in 2008 it was slightly different, in that there was nothing specifically wrong.
"I think that's why I was more concerned. Why am I feeling this way when I shouldn't be, when there's nothing wrong, when everything is fine in my life?"
I cannot relate to the life of an international athlete, but having woken up with the same feelings of anxiety, almost dread about the day that lies ahead every single morning of my adult life, I have some understanding of the control a mind can exert; and the fact that a downward spiral can be triggered … by no trigger at all.
And that’s when Helen’s words hit home…
To be able to recognise you need help is so much more difficult than it sounds. And even if you have that moment of objective clarity, denial often follows; it’s emotionally draining to keeping putting on that “brave face”, but in my case, that was preferable to showing any outward signs of weakness.
The situation can be further complicated by those closest to you seeing through the façade. I remember being told so many times I needed help, but the harder I fought to hide how I was feeling, the more obvious it became to the people around me.
The truth was I was the only one who could ask for help; and when I finally realised, I sat in front of a doctor … a stranger … and I crumbled. It was a day I remember vividly; it was horrible; but it was also special, because as soon the tears started to fall, my life began to change….
Helen had the self-awareness and strength to ask for professional help, but also had the support of her family and friends (including those who played alongside her in the sport in which she excelled). Helen is married to the former GB hockey captain Kate Richardson-Walsh, and having that one special person who will listen (even if they don’t always fully understand) makes such a huge difference.
I was privileged to spend a few minutes in Kate’s company back in 2014 as part of my “100 challenges” to raise mental health awareness, but although I have never met Helen, that doesn’t stop me admiring her not just as an outstanding athlete, but even more so as a brave and inspiring young woman.
Since Rio, Helen has retired from international hockey. From elite to amateur, the end of any sporting chapter can be hard to deal with, but although Helen reached the pinnacle of her chosen sport, she has a realistic (and deeply insightful) outlook.
"I'm potentially going through another tricky period now. I'm not playing for England, so that transition away from sport is a difficult period of time. Part of that is trying to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable - realising that … there could be ups and downs; and being ok with that. I'm a real thinker and I get lost in my own head quite a lot. I basically try to do things to stop me doing that. I've tried to put things in my life that I know help me.”
One of the reasons I set myself the “challenges” was to try and give me a focus; a distraction from all the negative thoughts and periods of introspection. They took me nearly four years, yet just days after I completed the 100th and final task; a noticeable vacuum has already appeared.
I already have a few ideas about how to fill that void; ways in which I will do my best to show that it is fine to talk about mental health; and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. For now though (whilst acknowledging the BBC copyright), it’s only right to leave the final few words to Helen Richardson-Walsh; and thank her for her honesty, courage, and eloquence, and for making me cry …twice!
"I do think there still is a stigma attached to mental health issues. I think you feel it as an individual, which is the difficult thing. You do think 'oh, I'm not strong enough to cope with all this', but my experience, when I've opened up about it, has been really positive. Find that one person you really trust, and try to speak to them. However little you say, just try and open up, just a little bit, and let somebody in. Let them know how you're feeling."