BARRY McGUIGAN is calling on the powers that be in the UK to work together in order to provide support for members of the sport suffering with mental health issues.
The topic has received increased media attention recently after world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury spoke out about his current battle with depression and substance abuse.
Tyson is one of a small group to open up about it but there are many more current and former fighters – and athletes – struggling with poor mental health who desperately need support.
“It’s not just our sport, it’s all sport that needs to do more,” McGuigan told Boxing News.
“The reality is that it will happen if it’s sport, but it won’t happen if it’s just our sport because we don’t have the money and we don’t have enough generosity. I’m not pointing the finger at anybody. Maybe the fact is that we can’t afford it, but we need to afford it. We’re in a situation where it cannot be unaffordable. It has to happen.”
Though Fury’s case, like that of Ricky Hatton’s and Frank Bruno’s before it, has been covered extensively in the national press it is just the latest in a long line.
Boxing, of course, is not the only sport that must deal with its athletes’ mental health, something McGuigan is acutely aware of.
“Whether it’s cricket, boxing, it is much more likely to happen if we go to the professional cricket association, the professional football association – and I know them all – and we all come under an umbrella and work together,” he continued.
“We sit together and we say ‘OK, we’ll put a million aside. You can afford this much, you can afford a little more.’ We do it as a proportionate amount of money. If we have half a dozen organisations, cricket, football, rugby, boxing, whatever else that wants to get involved, we all pitch in, we have maybe a half dozen very good counsellors and then we have a passing on to the NHS or to the right people. Ultimately, it all starts with really good counsellors and surely that can’t be that expensive.”
Cricket in particular has a macabre postscript for the men and women who play it at professional level, so much so that a male professional cricketer is almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male.
Marcus Trescothick, Michael Yardy and Jonathan Trott have all suffered with high-profile cases of mental illness during their careers, though their openness about the issue has led to positive developments from the Professional Cricketers Association (PCA).
The PCA works with the England and Wales Cricket Board to closely monitor the well-being of its members and earlier this year released a detailed 80-page document looking at mental health and the support available.
After the death of Wales manager Gary Speed in November 2011, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) sent its members guidelines on depression that included comic-book style storylines of stressful situations they might find themselves in.
The PFA also provides a 24-hour helpline backed up by a network of 70 trained counsellors and, for members who need more help, funds residential treatment at the Sporting Chance clinic founded by former England captain Tony Adams.
Several of these major organisations are also signatories to the Mental Health Charter, a government initiative aimed at tackling the stigma surround mental illness and how better to deal with the issue. Boxing News has reached out to Mind, the mental health charity which worked with the government in setting up the charter, and they have expressed interest in helping bring boxing up to speed.
No such support systems are in place for boxers in the UK, and the sport’s main governing bodies – the IBF, WBA, WBO and WBC – have also not yet addressed mental health straight on. At the amateur level, England Boxing and clubs like Empire Fighting Chance have highlighted the benefits boxing training can actually have on those suffering with mental illnesses. England Boxing has also signed up to the Mental Health Charter, whereas the British Boxing Board of Control, which regulates professional boxing in the UK, is yet to do so.
It is not a problem specific to boxing though, as a certain stigma around mental health and discussing it still exists in society. Charities like Mind encourage people to speak out if they’re having problems and to seek help whenever possible, while also stating that there is a notable rise in members of the public coming forward after a public figure like Bruno or Hatton has done the same.
Barry’s older brother Dermot took his own life in 1994, and McGuigan is determined to see cultural shifts before more lives are lost.
“Jesus Christ almighty, it’s 2016 already, we should already be doing that [providing support],” he mused.
“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.”
McGuigan wants to see some sort of fund to set up to help facilitate a support network regarding mental health for boxing in the UK, though remains convinced such an idea can only work if done in conjunction with other major sports in the country.
“I can only push if people are willing to push as well, I can only do so much. I’m ready and willing to go and talk and sit down with these guys,” he said.
“The Board of Control are a regulatory body, they’re not flush with money, but they can obviously put something in. So we also need to speak to promoters and television companies to help out, but we can’t do that until we go to other sports and get them ready to do it within their sports and then we’ll all come back together and say ‘right, let’s do it.’”
Though there is still clearly work to be done, more fighters are talking about their mental health. Alongside Fury, the likes of Leon McKenzie and Dave Allen have bravely discussed their struggles with depression and continue to urge others in similar positions to seek help.
This article was originally published in Boxing News magazine. To read more on the issue, and others including doping and what it’s like to fight a drug cheat, subscribe now.