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SPECIAL REPORT: Experts warn of addiction, eating disorders and depression in isolation

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“I wonder if some of these guys aren’t up for the ultimate test,” Ian Botham said, as uncertainty drags on around the Ashes.

If only England’s players were worried about the cricket.

Instead, the tour remains in doubt due to Covid restrictions Down Under – specifically the specter of more biosafe bubbles. The England team has been in and out of the bubble for 15 months. Some are reluctant to enter another set of them across Australia, Ashes or not.

Adam Peaty enjoyed success at the Tokyo Olympics, but promised to take a longer break

Both Ben Stokes (left) and Adam Peaty (right) have left to focus on their well-being

“As a kid, every player wants to go to Australia, they want to win the Ashes,” said captain Joe Root. “Only at what price?”

Normality beckons for society. For top athletes, the grind continues. Ben Stokes, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Adam Peaty are among those who must renounce to protect their well-being. Many others suffer in silence as the relationship between sports and mental health reaches a tipping point.

Sports post has spoken with a number of sports experts charged with treating the mental health of athletes. They warn:

  • More bubbles will cause more players to suffer from depression
  • Isolation has led to problems with addiction and eating disorders
  • Psychological damage caused by air bubbles can linger forever
  • Players have considered ‘breaking’ bubbles at night to escape the turmoil
  • “There has never been a situation like this that poses such a threat to players’ mental well-being,” head coach Don Macpherson tells us. “It’s getting out of hand and threatening to get even more out of hand.”
Joe Root (center) and England team are hesitant to commit to an Ashes bubble

Joe Root (center) and England team are hesitant to commit to an Ashes bubble

The Women’s Tennis Association mental health and wellness team is “cautious” about using the word bubble. It could be “misleading,” said Vice President Becky Ahlgren Bedics. They prefer ‘Covid test environments’.

The principle remains the same: competitors are housed in tightly controlled environments to minimize the risk of infection. And no change in semantics comforts those who suffer behind closed doors.

“You get stuck in this endless nightmare,” said Australian cricketer Glenn Maxwell.

American tennis star Reilly Opelka claims that life can ‘get dark’ and ‘scary’. The South African rugby team rules out another bubble, saying: ‘It will break the players.’

The downsides are obvious: weeks without loved ones or the freedom to explore. Only isolation and the slog of competition – often in empty arenas.

“Having too much time on your hands makes you a sedentary target for anxiety and depression,” says Macpherson, author of How to Master Your Monkey Mind.

Bubbles cause higher levels of intensity, intensity causes anxiety, anxiety can cause depression, that’s the smooth path. Unfortunately, I see a huge increase in depression in young athletes, especially between the ages of 16 and 24.’

One of the most notable cases of athlete welfare this year was Simone Biles.  from Team USA

One of the most notable cases of athlete welfare this year was Simone Biles. from Team USA

During the pandemic, athletes are contacting Macpherson “almost daily.”

“I’ve talked to English rugby players, English footballers, tennis players at Wimbledon, snooker players,” he says. “They feel restless, trapped, claustrophobic, emotionally flat. They are anxious and don’t know why, and have no idea what to do or where to go.

“Nottingham (tennis event) was very controlled and upset a lot of players. I got calls from players threatening to break out during the night, past the guards. It’s almost like Colditz – this vision of a tunnel from the hotel.’

Sporting Minds, a mental health charity founded by former Worcestershire academy cricketer Callum Lea, has seen a massive increase in referrals over the past 15 months.

The charity has supported more than 900 players from across the sport since 2020 – 119 in June 2021 alone. Increased stress and anxiety is a well-known complaint.

“It’s brilliant that athletes have had the strength and courage to step out of that environment,” says the 21-year-old. ‘You have to deal with your mental well-being first, otherwise you won’t have a long and sustainable career.’

A problem? Our tendency to overestimate the determination of athletes. “They seem so physically strong and flawless and there’s an inappropriate assumption that it’s the same inside,” said Claudia Reardon, a sports psychiatrist who works for the International Olympic Committee, among others.

In fact, there is evidence that elite athletes are more prone to mental illness. “They don’t normally go through the normal daily stress that you and I do,” explains Macpherson.

US tennis star Reilly Opelka claims life can get 'dark' and 'scary' for athletes trapped in bubbles

US tennis star Reilly Opelka claims life can get ‘dark’ and ‘scary’ for athletes trapped in bubbles

Reardon has looked into this together with the IOC. “We found that elite athletes are just as vulnerable to most mental health disorders as non-athletes,” she says. “Then there are certain ones where they are actually disproportionately more likely to suffer.

“Those of us who work clinically with elite athletes have been painfully busy during the pandemic. Athletes come in with symptoms that were directly caused by pandemic factors.”

Many can have roots in long-term confinement: social avenues are closed, rigid routines are disrupted.

“If that’s checked by someone else, you can go out on the field feeling unprepared,” Macpherson says. “It does have a negative effect on performance for the vast majority of players in bubbles.”

Disruption of sleep patterns can “seriously accelerate mental problems.” So can an inability to shift focus. Limited to that mind-numbing schedule (sleep-match-room-repeat), many athletes suffer when they “place their whole identity around their sport,” Lea says. “If their cricket or football isn’t going well, it’s almost like their whole life isn’t going well.”

Said more bluntly by Macpherson, the life of bubbles “unbalances brain chemicals.” The result? He has seen addictions – to phones, gambling and social media – increase, as well as worsening phobias and OCD. ‘You have time on your hands. Then mental problems can flourish’, he says.

Among those that alarm Reardon the most are eating disorders. “Huge,” she says. “Either triggered or exacerbated during the pandemic.”

Reardon explains, “Part of the athlete identity for many people is that they are very fit and strong and proud of their bodies.”

Naomi Osaka has vocally said she needed a break from tennis to protect her sanity

Naomi Osaka has vocally said she needed a break from tennis to protect her sanity

So when training is disrupted by isolation, some athletes “become very afraid that they will lose fitness (or) gain weight and become overly obsessed with eating, eating and eventually restricting.”

Is it any wonder that problems can snowball when the world comes to a standstill? After all, “exercise itself is a powerful antidepressant and anti-anxiety intervention,” explains Reardon. “If you suddenly stop exercising or reduce your ‘dose’ of it by 50 percent, it’s like suddenly cutting the dose of antidepressants in half.”

Not only are athletes more at risk for some problems, treating them with typical medications can be more complicated. “A side effect that might not be a big deal to a non-athlete can be a big problem,” explains Reardon. “If it slows down their 100m time by a hundredth of a second, that’s the difference between a gold medal or not.”

Other drugs may not be safe for athletes — pushing themselves to the limit — while WADA often bans stimulants used to treat certain conditions.

Fortunately, there are other ways to help. At this year’s US Open, Reardon helped launch a new six-part Mental Health Initiative. After Osaka’s struggle with media obligations, they offered more press “flexibility” to players who might be affected. They are now eager to talk to other Grand Slams and the IOC with a view to developing common standards for tennis.

Elsewhere right? What mental aids were the Lions players given before going on tour? I’ll tell you. None,” says Macpherson, whose client list also includes wing Anthony Watson.

“I don’t see much action from teams, and I can’t be the only mind coach getting calls from people in bubbles.”

Mind coach Don Macpherson counts the English Anthony Watson (center) among his clients

Mind coach Don Macpherson counts the English Anthony Watson (center) among his clients

For some athletes, the worst is yet to come. ‘It’s totally untenable. If bubbles persist over the next 18 months, Sporting Minds will see a massive spike in referrals,” Lea insists. Macpherson agrees. “There will be more Ben Stokes cases… he acknowledged that if they had done another tour they would not have been able to cope with the emotional trauma.”

The hope, of course, is that the problems will subside as normality returns. Unfortunately, the brain can’t turn disease on and off. Problems caused by bubbles will not go away even if they burst.

“There are people who assume that athletes can suck it up and live in this bubble because it’s temporary, and then they move on,” Reardon says. “It’s not something temporary. We’re certainly not near the woods.’

That doesn’t bode well. Last April, it was revealed that the number of football players reporting symptoms of depression has doubled since the shutdown, while anxiety symptoms have also increased.

So when will this damage be reversed? ‘I wouldn’t put a deadline on it. I don’t think it will end,” Reardon said. Certain stressors “can be life-changing forever,” she adds.

If there is a silver lining, Reardon believes that “we are in the early stages of the golden age” because “especially in the last year people are really realizing the importance of mental health.” Osaka and Co helped. “If an athlete like that comes forward, I’ll be busier in the clinic the next week,” she says.

Progress cannot be wasted after a pandemic. But as Macpherson points out, “It’s not enough just to talk about the importance of mental health… we have to do something about it.”

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