Our reaction to Geoff Boycott's comments on the depression of England cricketer Michael Yardy

Yesterday it emerged that England cricketer Michael Yardy has returned from the World Cup in India and Bangladesh due to his battle with depression. This is obviously a very difficult time for Michael, and we wish him all the best for his recovery.

Depression and anxiety are the most common mental disorders in the UK today, and the symptoms can be a very serious and debilitating. It is therefore not surprising that we should see people in the public eye experiencing depression in the same way that everyone else does.

One of the focuses of our work at the Mental Health Foundation has been to try and raise awareness and reduce the stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental illnesses like depression. Responsible reporting by the media can be very helpful in doing this, which is why it was good to see that the majority of the media coverage that followed Michael Yardy’s return home was suitably informed and sensitive.

However, comments from commentator and former England cricketer Geoff Boycott on BBC Radio 5-Live yesterday showed that we still have a lot of work to do to help people understand the truth about depression.

During the discussion on the issue, Mr Boycott implied that depression could be equated to feeling down or sad. However, while everyone feels unhappy at one time or another, depression can cause sustained, intense emotions of anxiety, hopelessness, negativity, worthlessness, and a loss of interest and pleasure. Sometimes these feelings can last months or even years.

Mr Boycott also implied that being a ‘better player’ would automatically reduce someone’s susceptibility to depression. This is also not accurate. Depression can hit anyone, anywhere, even the most successful people. Indeed, very successful people are often particularly vulnerable to depression, as traits like perfectionism and high ambition are not only associated with drive to succeed, but with vulnerability.

Depression is a deeply personal experience that varies from one person to the next, so it would not be appropriate to discuss the circumstances that might have brought on Michael Yardy’s experiences with the illness. In general, though, although sport and regular exercise are good for your mental health, the physical demands of the being a professional sportsman, the gruelling schedules, and in particular staying away from family and friends for sustained periods of time, can all place enormous stress on international sportspeople.

Some high profile sports stars also struggle with the level of public attention, while others may find it difficult to deal with the often unattainably high expectations they perceive others to have of them, or that they have of themselves.

Mr Boycott admitted in his interview that he “doesn’t understand depression and can’t comment on it”. With the greatest respect to someone who, in his day, was a very fine cricketer, we wish that he’d acted on his belief that he wasn’t qualified to comment on Yardy’s illness. Being dismissive of the condition or of any one person’s experiences with it can not only cause the individual concerned considerable distress (potentially worsening their condition), but also fuel discrimination and discourage other people in need from seeking help, for fear that they too may be treated dismissively.

It has taken the Mental Health Foundation and other campaigners huge time and effort to make the progress in reducing stigma and raising awareness of mental illnesses like depression that we have seen in recent years. There is still so much further to go, however, and we need media discussions on the subject to be informed and responsible if we are to continue to build on this progress and not regress to the dark old days of ignorance and prejudice.