Hockey’s golden couple fight off depression: Helen Richardson-Walsh on how wife Kate helped her beat mental health problems – The Telegraph
Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh last summer became the first married couple to win gold together for Britain since sailors Cyril and Dorothy Wright in 1920, when the women’s hockey side emerged victorious after a tumultuous penalty shoot-out against Holland in Rio de Janeiro.
They became the nation’s sweethearts. Kate, the captain of the side, was awarded an OBE, and Helen an MBE. As hockey’s golden couple, it is easy to imagine that the resplendent halo has followed them everywhere in life. Yet there was a time three years ago when the gleam faded into what Helen describes as her “grey area” as a long, dark cloud of depression enveloped her.
It coincided with a ruptured disc in her back that required two bouts of surgery and painful rehabilitation in the space of a year. At one point she was told that her career might be in doubt, while her absence caused her to miss the 2014 World Cup, a target that had pulled her through all those gruelling physiotherapy sessions.
Depression is not an X + Y = Z equation. These setbacks did not cause the depression in themselves. She had suffered depressive episodes previously, but it took her time to identify exactly what she was going through. “I think it was a realisation that I had been unhappy for a long time,” Helen said. “I was in a place where you are constantly down there.
“Something good may happen and you will feel OK for a short period but then you are straight back down. It is this grey area. It was a realisation that I had felt like that for a good few months and that wasn’t right. That is not how you should feel.”
Just as depression has no exact cause, nor does it have an exact solution. It is not like a headache that can be relieved by a couple of aspirin. Yet, watching her wife suffer, Kate’s first reaction, like many, was that it could be cured. “I like to fix things,” Kate said. “I want to make things better. I found it frustrating that I could not make Helen happy or better. I found that really difficult. It can be quite isolating. Mental health is hard for everyone, especially the person going through it, but also for the people around that person. It can become the elephant in the room where no one knows what to say or what to do. It is hard to see someone you love in a really dark place and not able to get out of it.”
Kate had challenges of her own, as England finished 11th out of 12 in the World Cup. Although she did not lapse into depression, she began questioning her values and purpose and started seeing a therapist at The Priory, which gave her a greater understanding of the help Helen needed.
“That enabled me to support Helen in a better way that allowed me to be there, empathise and listen rather than try to fix,” Kate said. “You can make a million cups of tea and tea is great, but it won’t solve your mental health issue.”
Helen’s condition improved, particularly with the use of mindfulness and especially with the support of her coach, Danny Kerry, and team-mates. Sport as a whole has become a lot more mature in dealing with mental health issues, as shown by the groundswell of support that Aaron Lennon, the Everton winger, received when he was detained under the Mental Health Act in May. There is still more work to do, especially in the corporate world. A poll of 2,000 employees who experienced depression showed only four per cent were comfortable speaking to their superior about their issues.
Together with Nigel Owens, the rugby referee, and Clarke Carlisle, the former Burnley defender and chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the Richardson-Walshs are supporting Legal & General’s “Not a Red Card Offence” campaign designed to tackle the stigma around mental health in the workplace.
“As a team in sport, we want to get the best out of everybody. In order to do that, you need people to be at their best,” Helen said. “That goes across to the corporate world where companies want to get the best out of their employees, but if they are not feeling at their best then they are not going to do that.
“Everyone will struggle at some point or will know someone who is struggling. We want to try to erase that stigma that is attached to it. People don’t talk because they worry what their boss might say or what their colleagues may think.
“In my case, there was a definite fear that people would regard you as weak or potentially the coach may not want you to be in a leadership position because you can’t handle it. But that is not what it is or what my mental illness is. Mental health has nothing to do with being mentally strong or weak. Our coach was actually very understanding about those things. This campaign is not just about raising awareness but offering the support mechanisms for people who don’t know what to say or do. You may see someone struggling but you have no idea how to approach them.”
It is coming up to the anniversary of Great Britain’s shoot-out victory. After the score finished 3-3 in normal time, Helen Richardson-Walsh and Hollie Webb scored the decisive penalties, with goalkeeper Maddie Hinch keeping out four Dutch efforts. Just as significant as Britain’s first women’s hockey gold was the nine million viewers that the BBC pulled in for its live coverage. It even delayed the start of the 10pm news, proof – if proof were needed – that women’s team sport can generate mass appeal with the right platform.
That was further reinforced by the England football team’s success at Euro 2017 and the cricket team in winning the World Cup last weekend, which brought memories flooding back of their own success.
“Unfortunately, we could not be there so we were listening to it on the radio,” Helen said. “We were listening to Clare Connor and Karen Smithies on Test Match Special and they were talking about how significant that day was. That brought back a lot of memories, not just of Rio but for the whole of our career and how we have progressed to reach that moment.”
The challenge comes in what follows when the spotlight fades, and maintaining that level of profile all year round, particularly when the beast that is Premier League football raises its head. Yet Kate and Helen are optimistic that women’s sport is going from strength to strength.
“We have shown if you put it out there and it is a quality product then people will follow it,” Kate said. “No doubt the amount of people who watched our final and semi-final has made the point that if you put it on then people will watch.
“We laugh when we look back at what we were wearing and how we were training when we started. We were at an Olympic qualifying tournament back in 2000 with big baggy men’s polo shirts.
‘‘It shows in a short period of time how far we have come and that it will keep getting better in every aspect. In another 50 years’ time, there’s no reason why we can’t be where men’s sport is in terms of profile.”
From: The Telegraph