BOXING is 80 per cent mental. At least. Any self-respecting member of our close-knit fraternity will tell you that. The other 20 per cent is predominantly covered by the arduous training camps fighters put themselves through to ensure they’re in peak condition on fight night. If an injury occurs, it is dealt with as soon as possible and, if need be, the fight is postponed or cancelled altogether. On the whole, fighters are quick to flag up any physical problems they’re having.
It’s a different story when it comes to mental health.
Research shows that one in four of us in the UK will struggle with a mental health problem every year. In boxing rhetoric, that’s one person in each corner of a fight. Consider also that, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. For a male-dominated sport like boxing, that is an alarming statistic. However, studies show that around twice as many women suffer from depression as men – yet the male to female suicide rate is 3:1 in the UK, and that trend is similar across the globe according to the World Health Organisation.
Experts believe this is because men are far less likely to discuss mental health issues. In boxing, and sport in general, this problem is amplified.
“Elite athletes have a difficult time accepting emotional struggles and seeking assistance. However, once they do seek assistance they often apply their sports work ethic to their emotional recovery, making progress more likely,” Dr Caroline Silby, a world renowned sports psychologist, told Boxing News.
“We are not yet at the point in amateur or professional sports where mental illness is treated as seriously as physical illness.”
Research into boxing and mental illness is scarce, however the NFL surveyed around 2,500 retired players and found that those who had suffered at least three concussions had triple the risk of clinical depression than those who had no concussions. It is not a huge stretch to estimate that boxers, who take countless more blows to the head, are just as susceptible.
Although society is discussing mental health more openly, there is still an unnerving amount of stigma attached to it. The Professional Players’ Federation (PPF) conducted a study of 1,200 former sportsmen in 2013 and found that 32 per cent “say they do not feel in control of their lives two years after quitting sport” and 16 per cent “admit to depression and feelings of despair in the first year.” However, they point out that these figures might underestimate the problem as some participants were not willing to admit they were struggling. The report’s authors suggested that with contracts at stake, rivals looking for an edge and fans belittling players every time they go down, athletes feel “soldiering on” is a better option. They go on to argue that this is why the majority of sportspeople who have admitted to mental health issues have done so after their careers are over, or when things have spiralled out of control.
Mind, a leading mental health charity in the UK, came to similar conclusions after researching elite sport’s relationship with the issue.
“Athletes who are still playing and competing have expressed concern about the impact revealing or asking for support for a mental health problem can have on their career, showing there is clearly still a stigma attached to mental health,” their report reads.
If you look at two of the most well-known cases in British boxing – Ricky Hatton and Frank Bruno – this certainly rings true. Their struggles only fully came to light in retirement, but both should be commended for the bravery they’ve shown in discussing their battles with mental illness, and the work they undertake to help others with similar problems.
Their message is clear: mental illness is not a weakness. If you are struggling, seek help. If you notice someone close to you struggling, help in any way you can, even if that is just letting someone know you’re there for them.
FOOTBALL The PFA provides a 24-hour helpline backed up by a network of 70 trained counsellors. They also have guidelines on depression and mental illness.
RUGBY UNION Each Premiership club and London Irish in the Championship has a player development manager who helps them with all aspects of life outside rugby. There is a confidential 24-hour helpline where counselling is available around the clock. They recently launched the ‘Lift The Weight’ campaign which focused on players’ mental wellbeing.
RUGBY LEAGUE There are player welfare managers at each Super League club, while the Rugby Football League has a relationship with Sporting Chance. ‘State of Mind’ programme launched in 2011.
CRICKET The Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) has seven mental health ambassadors who help carry out pre-season visits to all 18 first-class counties. There is a confidential helpline which is open 24 hours a day and has been running for 10 years.
Unfortunately in boxing, a sport swirling with hypermasculinity, admitting to a problem many people still think you can just “get over” by “cheering up” is not the done thing. Last year Dave Abberley, an aspiring amateur, and just a few weeks ago Bheki Moyo, a respected journeyman, took their own lives. In recent years we’ve seen the likes of Lewis Pinto and leading figure Dean Powell tragically driven to the same despair.
Promoter and manager Mickey Helliett worked closely with Pinto, Powell and Moyo.
“Now, it’s essential that we have a mechanism in place. Say when they interview guys right at the beginning of their career and say, we know boxing is a stressful business, if it really gets to you then you can ring this number,” he suggested.
“Over the past few years I’ve lost Lewis Pinto, Dean Powell and now Bheki Moyo. I don’t want to lose anyone else. I become very attached with the guys I work with, it’s almost like family. It’s crippling when something like that happens. It’s like losing a family member.
“We rely on the Board to do things that should be done. I think that now something should be done for these guys, how many are on the edge of [suicide]?”
Around 18 months ago the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) held a seminar on mental health, encouraging license-holders to discuss and learn about the issue. Nobody attended. The Board coupled the seminar with one about doping in boxing.
“[Mental health] is a big issue, it’s become very prevalent in recent times. Modern society, obviously we have to look at things we’ve never dealt with before. We held a seminar for boxers to discuss mental health but nobody attended, which was unfortunate,” Robert Smith, general secretary of the BBBofC, told Boxing News.
“It’s not just pin-pointing one particular issue, and I understand that some people may be wary of putting their head above the parapet, but if we can combine it with other issues that are just as important, then hopefully they will get rid of those shackles of concern.”
One seminar every few years is not nearly enough but, thankfully, the BBBofC know this. Leon McKenzie turned to professional boxing after a successful career as a professional footballer. He has also struggled with depression and in the past tried to take his own life. His father, Clinton, and uncle, Duke, were very successful professional fighters but Leon, in comparing boxing with football, is concerned about how we handle mental health as a sport.
“With depression, what I’ve noticed and what I’ve observed in this profession, I’ve seen my dad box at a high level, my uncle box at a very high level, and then going into professional football, to compare both sports, boxing needs to do a hell of a lot more than it’s currently doing,” he told Boxing News.
“That’s not to put down the Board of Control or other governing bodies, but there’s got to be more money put into the right places for boxers because there’s nothing at all.
“When I was a footballer we were advised, we had pensions and we had things to put our money into to give us a little bit of a chance. There are counsellors we can go to, I’m still a member of the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) so I can get so much more, there’s medical insurance and other funds. The PFA has a lot more money than boxing organisations, but there’s got to be more options for boxers who come away from the sport and there’s nothing. That can’t be right.
“I personally think there’s got to be something in place. We’ve got to come together and put mental health at the top of the list. Why not think about maybe pensions, or some sort of fund where you have to put a little bit of money in every so often.
“There’s no one to call. If I’m struggling, there’s no one to call. When I was playing football, I could call the PFA and say ‘I’m struggling, I tried to take my own life, I’m depressed.’ In boxing, who do we call? Where do we go? That’s why you find a lot of boxers struggle on their own and it can become a very serious problem. There’s got to be more openness, more access to boxers who are struggling.”
DR SILBY believes that prevention is key and identifies three basic concepts for this: 1) coping strategies including stress management and performance enhancement; 2) debriefing strategies in the form of assessing mood as well as an understanding of one’s personal strengths and how those contribute to both athletic and personal success; 3) relaxation strategies for recovery and personal health and well-being.
“This requires ‘flipping’ the status quo and consistently and coherently redefining desired outcomes in boxing from ‘winning at all costs’ to ‘development of healthy individuals who also achieve their athletic potential,’” she says. “It would be hugely impactful for the Board of Control to tell athletes and their ‘teams’, you are at risk for this, the symptoms are X, the causes are Y and the resources are Z.”
Dr Silby believes there should be set measures for treatment once someone is diagnosed and there should be post-sport support structures in place. She also emphasises the importance of awareness and education; what signs to look out for and what to do/where to go for help in response.
Former world featherweight champion, Barry McGuigan, feels the same and, like Leon, understands that the BBBofC is a regulatory body and so funds to set up formal support structures are thin.
“Ultimately, it all starts with really good counsellors and surely that can’t be that expensive,” he told us.
“Jesus Christ almighty, it’s 2016 already, we should already be doing that [providing support].
“It needs to be done now, not wait for another death or another person to commit suicide. My brother committed suicide in 1994 and it’s very close to me. People are just not listening, it’s still taboo. We have to talk about it and if we talked about it more maybe these things wouldn’t happen, maybe my brother wouldn’t have taken his life. We need to do something about it.”
While other sports are making major strides with regards to tackling the issue (see sidebar), boxing, as is so often the case, is behind the times. However, there is good news. Smith recently sat down with Hayley Jarvis, Community Programmes Manager for sport at Mind, and Matthew Williams, a Club Support Officer at England Boxing who has depression.
The Board have signed the Mental Health Charter, which was set up by Mind, The Sport and Recreational Alliance and the PPF to get its signatories to take active steps toward dealing with mental illness and to share best practice.
“England Boxing already are a signatory and the BBBofC have signed the Charter and we’ll be seeing how we can work together to raise awareness,” Jarvis said after the meeting.
“It’s early days, we all recognise that mental health is something we need a response to and we’d rather do that proactively rather than reactively.
“We’re looking at some workshops for boxers, coaches and managers and potentially some wider action. There’ll definitely be some positive action over the next year.”
While Smith acknowledges the Board’s responsibility to look after the welfare of licence holders, he also worries that too much pressure is put on them to resolve every issue that crops up in the sport.
“Boxing is part of society. Everybody is more aware of mental health than they’ve ever been before. We know there’s an issue but it’s not just in boxing, it’s society. Boxing, football, rugby are all part of society so if we can take those first steps, boxing, football and rugby will follow,” he said.
“[People] have a source to go to and that’s their own GP. People say the governing bodies have got to do this and that, but their first port of call should be their doctor and then their doctor can refer them to the right people. I have lots of companies offering to do this and that but it costs the boxers a lot of money, so if they do have problems they should speak to the people around them.
“[Other sporting bodies] are funded completely differently to us. Football even gets funding from the government. We don’t get anything, our money is generated by the licence holders through licence fees and levies etc. but we don’t get any funding from outside sources. Everything we make goes back into the business. We do have a charity, any disciplinary action against a licence holder who is fined goes into the charity. That charity money is used to assist however we can. When there’s an issue, the first thing people say is ‘the governing body has to deal with it’ but how many issues can we deal with before we go bankrupt? I’m not closing my eyes or putting my head in the sand, there are many organisations that can help and are more qualified than we are, such as Mind.
“We are not in a position to set up an organisation like Mind, however we don’t need to because there already is one and they are much more qualified than us.”
It’s still early days for boxing, but Mind have worked with numerous other sports and made real change. They, and the BBBofC, face challenges though. There is no union for boxers and licence holders are not employees, so implementing widespread measures will need to be done differently.
THE boxing community looks after its own, as was made clear when Raghib Hanif got in touch with the guys at Mack The Knife (formerly known as Macklin’s Gym Marbella). Growing up, Hanif was bullied and abused to the point where he became suicidal. He started boxing to gain some confidence and had over 60 amateur bouts.
“As the years went by, I went to some really dark places. Like anyone growing up I went through things, my mum had a heart transplant, my dad had a tumour in his stomach and I was really low,” he told BN.
In 2014 he bumped into Seamus Macklin, Matthew Macklin’s brother, and they got to talking. Raghib told Seamus his story, and Macklin asked if Raghib wanted to visit their gym in Marbella.
Eventually, Raghib was put in touch with Daniel Kinahan and Anthony Fitzpatrick, who run MTK.
“I’m working for them now, helping out at shows and I also got a job as a healthcare assistant working at a mental health institute in Middlesbrough, working with forensic mental health patients,” Raghib said.
He admits that without their support, he is not sure what he would have done. He’s worked with several boxers with regards to mental health and wants to do more.
“It’s such a big help if people know there’s someone they can speak to. There’s not enough done at the moment,” he said.
“The challenge with boxing is the fact it’s an individual sport and, as boxers, they’re self-employed so they don’t have a players’ union, so that does make it a little more difficult but, proactively, England Boxing and the BBBofC really want people to be open and honest with them and they want to be able to support people’s mental health positively,” Jarvis continued.
“It’s been huge, I think there’s still a lot more work that can be done, but there’s been some fantastic work across the whole sporting landscape.”
England Boxing have already implemented some effective measures to better deal with the mental health of amateur participants and could work alongside the BBBofC to do the same in the pro game.
“It’s something that people don’t think can affect them until it does, or it affects someone close to them. So we just want people to get thinking about it and have it on their radar,” Williams said.
“At the moment it’s about trying to get the message out there. The potential is there for us to do something with the BBBofC and Mind and it can shine a lot of attention on it. Statistically, there will be a lot of people out there who can relate to this, it’s just a case of how much they can feel they can engage with it. People don’t have to do it alone and keep it quiet. You can talk about this.”
The Board, England Boxing, Mind and other organisations can only do so much. Ultimately, attitudes need to change. McKenzie, who is training to become a counsellor, has been called ‘Suicide Leon’ by opponents who have also vowed to “send him back into depression.” Such ignorant, vile language has no place in the sport, or society.
When Tyson Fury’s mental health struggles were revealed last year, many felt compelled to belittle the heavyweight champion and some questioned the reasons behind his depression, as if he had some sort of say in the matter. Some boxing insiders even said that he just needed to “pull himself together.” It is nowhere near as simple as that, and it shows that we still have a long way to go before people truly understand the issue.
Mental health is not something to be shied away from, nor is there a quick fix for those suffering. What is essential is that we keep the conversation open and work together to support those who need it.