November 27, 2013

Hold the judgements and the congratulations

Hasty assumptions will not help Jonathan Trott, or our understanding of mental health

I was very sad to hear that Jonathan Trott has returned home from the Ashes with stress-related problems. I admire him as a player on many levels. He does not owe his England career to being a favourite of power brokers inside the English game and media. He had to force his way into the team through weight of runs. Once in the side, to keep the critics at bay, he has had to keep scoring runs. Very often, he has done exactly that. He has been a strong, resilient batsman, an "absolute rock" in the England side as Andy Flower said yesterday.

As an opponent in county cricket, I found Trott to be relentless in his pursuit of self-improvement. His instinctive answer to the sport's challenges was to spend a few hours in the middle and battle his way through. Like Alastair Cook, Trott has come close to maximising the talent he was given. In terms of character, there is no higher praise in professional sport.

If the news itself saddened me, the reaction to Trott's withdrawal has been saddening in a quite different way. A few days ago, Trott's batting, and his character as a batsman, was being brutally deconstructed across the spectrum. With the news of his withdrawal, expert opinion has performed a convenient 180-degree turn.

Analysis need not always rely on assumption. It is possible to interpret the facts we do know without guessing about those we do not. Sadly, the discussion of Trott's departure has encouraged a worrying series of related assumptions.

The first is a problem of language, or, to be precise, labelling. Where mental health is concerned there is a tendency to blur categories that ought to remain distinct. The subject of stress is bracketed together with mental health, and then depression becomes synonymous with mental illness. That is a dangerous series of lapses in language.

Yesterday I was asked to appear on several radio and television programmes, presumably because I have sometimes written about the subject of depression. But we do not have any evidence that Trott has depression, in the clinical sense of the term. Trott may have a version of depression. He may have an extreme case of stress. He may have reached the limit of his psychological resilience for a variety of reasons, some public and others private. We simply do not know. What gets lost here is a very different truth: some people, though they never suffer from any form of clinical depression at all, nonetheless experience phases in their lives when they are unable to function in their professional capacities. They are no less deserving of our sympathy.

A second problem arose from the humane desire to avoid heartlessness. I want to be clear. I have no time for the old-school view that stress-related problems can always be solved by a matey drink or a stiffening of resolve. It would have been inexcusable if Trott had been ridiculed for coming home. Crucially, however, it does not follow that he will be helped by a mood of hasty congratulation. Trott's withdrawal, about which we know very few real facts, was instantly recast as an act of bravery. In this analysis, Trott is described as "confronting an issue", as though he was consciously acting on behalf of thousands of people in a similar situation. Note that Trott himself has said nothing of the kind. In saddling him with the role of fighting for a just and humane cause, we further burden and complicate the life of a man who is already searching for greater simplicity.

There are also serious dangers in rushing to announce that Trott has "made the right decision". What does that phrase mean? Who really knows, objectively, whether it is the right decision? Only time will tell. A man has made a judgement about his own state of mind, and we have leapt to judge that judgement as "correct". Correct according to whom? The assumption here is that we are in position to affirm Trott's own judgement of himself. That demands many guesses. Rather than judging his withdrawal as "right", we might use a different phrase. It is right that the decision is Trott's. Beyond that, let's stay silent. In rushing to decree that Trott "made the right decision", we make a speedy return for him more difficult, not easier. In blindly praising his decision, we accidentally bolt the aeroplane door behind him.

Fourthly, language matters. We use words, hopefully, in an attempt to describe reality. Problems follow when words slide from describing the world as it is, and instead become slippery approximations for the world as we would like it to be. When it is stated that he has "done the brave thing", or that playing on might even have been cowardly - given that, in his words, he was "not 100%" - the phrases are intended to support Trott. In fact, snap judgements accidentally demean others. A moment's logic will suffice. What about those players who have faced stress-related problems and decided to play on - and found that the decision suited their circumstances, and the stress once more receded to manageable levels? Were they cowards?

Making assumptions based on little or no evidence does nothing to help Trott, nothing to help the understanding of mental health, and nothing to educate people about the nature of depression.

Jonathan Trott has gone home. I hope he is back soon.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here