By Kelsey Riley
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the subject of mental health seems to be working its way closer to the forefront of the news media and the public’s attention. Data released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month revealed that as many as one in four people between 18 and 24 years of age surveyed between June 24 and 30 had had suicidal thoughts in the past 30 days. The study showed that 11% of adults in the general population had considered suicide during the same time period, with those numbers higher among minorities: 19% of Hispanics had experienced such thoughts, and 15% of Blacks. And it’s not like the numbers were positive pre-pandemic: the CDC reported in 2017 that the suicide rate among working-age Americans had risen 40% in less than two decades.
There is hardly a human on the planet that isn’t contending with the primary and secondary fears and fallouts of the pandemic, and the horse racing industry is unlikely to escape its mental health effects: not only do we employ large numbers from the minority groups that are being disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and mental health struggles, but we also have many similar features to the agriculture sector, which tends to yield high rates of mental health concerns among its participants. According to data released by the CDC in January, agriculture was one of five major industry groups with suicide rates significantly higher than the total study population. On the other hand we are a sport combined with a high-stakes business, each of which bring significant pressures of their own even in the best of times.
Dr. Tyler Bradstreet is the director of clinical and sports psychology at Texas Tech Athletics. He explained that the onset of mental health concerns as a result of the pandemic has come on later than anticipated by experts.
“I think at first there was a lot of conversation about needing to flatten the curve with coronavirus, but that we should be thinking about the upcoming mental health curve that was going to come from all this,” he said. “So I think we were really preparing during March, April and May to see a really big spike in our athletes reaching out for mental health services. We were caught off guard because we really didn’t see that; it stayed pretty consistent with what we’d typically see. So we didn’t really know what to make of that; were people just more resilient than we thought?
“I think as we’re getting further along the reason for that was that everybody had to pause on their life and their sport. When you think about athletes, when it comes to mental health a lot of what they do is captured in that athletic realm. But because they weren’t in that athletic realm I think they were just hitting pause on everything they were doing related to that. And I think people in general were doing that.”
Racing Welfare is a charity in the UK that provides an array of help and guidance to the Thoroughbred industry’s workforce in that country, and the organization’s director of welfare Simone Sear echoed Bradstreet’s observation that the mental health aspect of the pandemic has taken longer to surface than initially expected.
“In the last four weeks [in July] we’ve started to see a rise in people coming to us needing help with mental health and well being issues,” Sear said. “We didn’t at first; I think for a lot of people that adrenaline kind of kicked in and I think to some extent people were responding to crisis, but as time has gone on we’ve seen a bit of a rise.”
Bradstreet said that the pandemic is adding further layers of stress to athletes and people who work in high-pressure jobs.
“Even though we don’t talk about it the same way, we have a mental health immune system too,” he said. “The way I frame it is thinking about what our threshold is for stress. For an athlete, or anybody in a high-performing dynamic environment, whether that’s sport or business, to be successful you’re already pushing really close to your threshold; that’s what’s allowing you to thrive; you’re really maximizing all that you have. But energy is finite; there is only so much time and effort you can give. You’re juggling all these things that put you above the threshold and these stressors start popping up. If you get above that threshold that’s when your mental health immune system is more suppressed and you’re more likely to experience different types of psychological distress, whether that’s depression or anxiety.”
Few who work in the Thoroughbred industry would deny that managing and protecting their own or others’ substantial investments can bring along with it intense levels of stress. Eric Hamelback is now the chief executive officer of the National Horsemens Benevolent and Protective Association, but in a former life he was the manager for several high-powered Thoroughbred owner/breeders. Hamelback has become candid about his battle with anxiety and depression during that time in hopes that sharing his experiences may help others.
“I distinctly remember leaving the November sales one year, which was always a big pressure cooker, and driving myself to the hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack,” he recalled. “That sort of thing towards the end [of that job] got worse and worse. The physical part of it was the night sweats; [wife] Deborah would wake me up and I’m having these conversations with myself; it was bad. She was out of town one weekend and I went through an anxiety episode and essentially had to take myself to the hospital. My wife had been away at a family function and I was at home by myself, which is another part of the side that doesn’t lean to support. A lot of these people isolate themselves; I know I did. You kind of wall things off and you don’t want to talk about it and that really just makes it worse.”
Hamelback was not alone in being reluctant at the time to share his struggle with others. While no formal studies have been conducted on mental health in the racing industry in the U.S., a study released last year by Liverpool John Moores University and Racing Welfare among all sectors of racing professionals and staff in the UK revealed that a social stigma of being viewed negatively and the need to appear strong for colleagues or peers were the main reasons why respondents had not sought help with mental health concerns. Some sectors, like trainers, cited a fear of losing business if owners found out they were seeing a psychologist, and therefore projecting a perceived weakness. Hamelback said he thinks being able to recognize one’s limitations makes for better leadership that will ultimately contribute to greater levels of success in business.
“There’s no way you can get around the fact that you have to be tough, you have to be thick-skinned [in the Thoroughbred industry], but I don’t necessarily think that’s any different to any other major industry,” he said. “I also think that if you don’t recognize [mental health red flags] you may end up hindering yourself as a leader. If you have the tools and recognition to understand what you’re going through, to either get help or get support from internal means, that in itself is a sign of good leadership.
“There is no way around that fact that you have to have some good, tough skin and you do have to be able to operate under pressure or you won’t necessarily succeed. But then there’s that fine line of if you can do more if you recognize pressure and help work yourself through it. You’re not going backwards, and I think that’s what most people think. But if you fall into that category that you’re just going to keep accepting the pressure, you’re leaving qualities on the table that might not ever shine through. I think that’s the part of the stigma that should be broken. You’re not going to go backwards by recognizing the problem. You’re not going to lose your job, at least I should hope, from some high-powered wealthy owner if you recognize the fact that it’s a lot of pressure and you need to get through it, but you need a little bit of help.”
Bradstreet said that such stigmas are slowly waning in the sports world. Indeed, this month HBO released the documentary Weight Of Gold, in which 12 Olympic athletes led by narrator Michael Phelps spoke openly about their mental health struggles. Bradstreet said he hopes the sports world can serve as a model for wider society and other industries when it comes to breaking down stigmas.
“I’ve been working in sports for about 10 years and it’s certainly gotten better in terms of the stigma being reduced,” he said. “I think that’s one of the great things about sports being a microcosm of the larger society, is that a lot of things play out because of the platform that athletes have, and mental health awareness has been something that you see athletes speak out on. We’re in a place now here at Texas Tech where I think at any given time about 20% of our athletes are engaged in mental health treatment and really prioritize that. Last year around 85% of our athletic population met with us at least once for a mental health appointment.”
Another of Bradstreet’s areas of focus is on men’s health and the psychology of masculinity. He said that while progress is happening, it will take plenty of hard work yet to break down the perceived norms that have been ingrained in humans for generations.
“There are definitely some positive strides but there is certainly still that stigma, because it’s hard to change course in terms of the norms or expectations that are built into certain cultures or environments. When you think about masculinity, there is a lot that men learn at a very early age in terms of what they can and cannot do to demonstrate their manhood. Even if we’re in a place where it’s more accepted, there is a longstanding history of those things being reinforced and even if it’s more accepted it’s hard to break free from those habits.”
Bradstreet concurred with Hamelback that it is a positive step to be able to identify areas where one may need help and to seek it.
“For me when I think mental toughness I think of an athlete who is resilient and psychologically flexible; when there are things going wrong for them they’re able to utilize their resources, acknowledge it and focus on those growth areas,” he said. “I think traditionally the athletic culture would say someone that is mentally tough, there is only one way to be: you have to have a certain mindset that is unwavering and there is never anything wrong with you. I think that’s still hanging on in places and that lends itself to people saying, ‘maybe I can’t address this, maybe my status with the team or maybe my ability to work for this owner will be in jeopardy if they know I’m depressed. Maybe they’ll view that differently than they should.’ We still see that from time to time.”
Christopher Wilby, a stud farm worker in the Newmarket area, is a prime example of the good that can come from summoning the bravery to speak up and get help. In early 2018, Wilby was dealing with the fallouts of a gambling addiction when, in the space of a week, both his parents were diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Wilby lost both his mother and father within the space of six months.
“I was not in a very good place,” Wilby admitted. “I went in to see Racing Welfare after I’d had various chats with human resources at work and they said, ‘why don’t you go see those guys and see if they could help you and what’s out there?’ Racing Welfare listened to my story, were very understanding and found me the right type of counseling. I was lucky enough to have 12 sessions with a lady who really, really did help me massively. I’m very, very grateful for what Racing Welfare did for me. I can honestly say I don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t gone there. I was in a bad way but I feel like I’ve come out the other side a stronger person.”
Keen to acknowledge the impact that Racing Welfare had on his life and to help the organization help others, Wilby undertook a 111-mile charity relay run with two of his coworkers. They raised £2,035 for Racing Welfare.
“I’m very, very grateful for what Racing Welfare did for me,” said Wilby, noting that he has put his gambling troubles behind him. “I still have some pretty tough days-sometimes you’ll hear a song or someone will say something and it’ll bring back memories [of your family]. It can be a bit tough but I try to deal with it the best way I can and look forward-that’s what my parents would have liked me to do.”
“I think it’s getting better. People are willing to look for help and talk to people,” he added. “I think sometimes when you’ve been down that avenue yourself you notice things with people, if they’re not in the best of places, especially when you’re working with people day in and day out, you get to know their characters. I’ve been there for quite a few people in the past where I’ve had a chat with them on the side.”
Hamelback said he has also reached the point where he wants to be a pillar for people who are struggling.
“I’m happy that I’m in a place in my life where I can be somewhat of a case study. I think the more people that are cognizant of this situation and the more people that are willing to help and or get help, the better.”
“I do feel as if it’s made me more aware of peoples’ demeanors,” he added. “Everybody has good days and bad days but that’s obviously not what we’re talking about. When you have some added pressure of, at least in our world now, the social media criticism, that sort of thing really gets to people. I think you have to be cognizant, at least in my position, of reaching out to someone and saying, ‘hey, this is not as big of a deal as you see it now. You will get through this.’ That part for me is a growth and understanding and I’m certainly cognizant of reaching out to people that in my view be under some pressure and give them some support.”