A Spotlight on Stress in the Era of COVID: Eric Hamelback


Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National HBPA HBPA


Working in racing has always been a stressful occupation; a roller-coaster of emotions, triumphs and tragedies, long hours and travel. Add a global pandemic and unprecedented economic worry, with many participants fearing for their health, livelihoods and businesses, and the stress can become almost overwhelming. It’s the sort of topic many people don’t like to talk about, but we asked several industry participants to open about what particular stresses they were feeling during these very concerning times, and how they were dealing with them. We open up with a remarkable letter that National HBPA CEO Eric Hamelback has sent to his membership.

To say this year has been rough would certainly be the understatement of 2020 (so far). What we have all experienced personally and as an industry can undoubtedly be defined by one of the more commonly used words this year—unprecedented. We have seen events canceled amid health concerns even while implementing social distancing guidelines, experienced resource insecurity and much more.

All of that combined can affect our mental health and well-being. I feel that the topic of mental health, in particular, is not being discussed as much as it should be. With the issues our industry has had this year, we should all pay more attention to mental stress, which continues to burden many within our industry as well as those around us. Many of you reading this may not know that May was Mental Health Awareness Month. But we can still let it serve as a reminder to us all that self-care is critically important in addressing the stresses and disappointments stemming not only from the COVID-19 pandemic but also those being felt in our industry.

Rarely would I make my CEO letter personal, but this letter will be just that—personal. Stress on one’s mental health can affect us all—including you and me. Within the racing and breeding industry, I know mental health conditions can affect trainers, assistants, farm managers, jockeys, grooms and hot walkers, who all work in high-pressure environments. The lack of conversation about the subject can lead to crippling anxiety and depression, and in some extreme circumstances, it can lead to suicide. The suicide rates within the horse racing industry and within agriculture as a whole are alarming.

This topic strikes me to the core and has significantly affected me as well as my family. I know because I have experienced these conditions. This letter, while personal in nature, is meant to strike a chord in everyone, and I urge you to please take the effort to look around and help when help is needed. Many of you know my history, and I am able to talk at length about my fight with anxiety and severe depression, which I dealt with while under the extreme pressure of working for two major operations in the industry.

I read a post on Facebook recently from a friend who shared the thoughts of someone who posted their personal struggles with mental stress, and seeing this post inspired me to openly discuss this topic in my CEO letter. This very private post forced me to recall times in my life and in my career when the mental burdens of my positions became almost unsurmountable. I learned how much stress can take a toll on your physical and mental health, and I recognized I needed help. Unfortunately, many do not. Now, I understand how important it is to give assistance to those in need, and it is just as important for those of us suffering from stress to recognize the problem and then reach out for support.

The consequences of not getting support are becoming a staggering statistic.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders, each year one in four people suffer from a mental health problem, which is why I hope to become more progressively involved in making sure this topic is more openly discussed and that assistance is made available in our industry. Organizations such as the National HBPA and the Race Track Chaplaincy of America need to put forth better efforts toward mental health recognition, aid in the promotion and adoption of good mental health practices, promote positive public health messages and be a resource to help horsemen find mental health care providers.

The occurrence of stress and mental well-being issues within our industry is indicative of the need for all of us to do a better job of recognizing the signs and offering assistance and support. We should be taking action on the most basic of levels, simply by opening up mental health discussions within our operations. Talking openly to one another about how we are feeling and leaning on one another for support could influence those who need help to take steps in the direction of professional support.

If more and more of us open up about the struggles we have experienced personally, it will lead to others jumping onboard to support those in need or to ask for help. We must eradicate the stigma many have about mental health issues and work harder toward recognition, treatment and recovery.

I ask that you please join me—a survivor—in working toward lowering the disturbing trend that is growing in our culture and in our industry. “Horsemen Helping Horsemen” is the motto of the National HBPA, and that has never been more important than right now. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. If you think someone else needs help, don’t be afraid to offer. We can all make a positive difference in the lives of others in our industry.

Would you like to share your thoughts on stress during this particularly difficult time? Email the TDN’s Katie Ritz at [email protected] or Sue Finley at [email protected]

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