In the second part of a short series which considers the impact of mental health issues, Carl Evans talks to Kay Boyden of Racing Welfare and to a former point-to-point rider who has found ways of coping with their challenges...
Increased awareness within society and some high-profile and tragic cases of sufferers, has given many people a greater understanding of mental health issues.
We can all recognise a broken leg, we don’t always understand the stress of being stressed or feeling lost in a morass of dark thoughts and hopelessness. That is why the charity Racing Welfare has embraced the subject of mental health in order to be there for sufferers who work in racing, on stud farms and in the world of point-to-pointing.
Yesterday’s verdict by a coroner that Rose Paterson, the chairman of Aintree racecourse, took her life earlier this year emphasised the point that depression and suicidal thoughts are not confined to the young. Paterson was 63, a popular head of Aintree respected for her calm approach to the role, had three adult children and been married for 40 years to a successful businessman and politician.
Kay Boyden, Racing Welfare’s Wellbeing Workforce Programme Manager, works with the charity’s nationwide team of welfare officers to guide racing people towards solutions to a range of issues, from housing to physical injuries, and financial worries to mental health issues. Occasionally all those elements are working at the same time to create the perfect storm.
The stigma of admitting to a psychological problem is but one hurdle which sufferers have to overcome. Boyden says: “Racing is perceived as being a tough industry and there’s an element of ‘put up and shut up’ which prevents some people from opening up. People feel the need to present as being tough and on top of the job. The stigma relating to that is something we are trying to break down. We look after our physical health and wouldn’t think twice about going to a doctor with a physical issue, but we are not so forthcoming with our mental wellbeing.”
She reiterates: “Racing is not alone in dealing with such issues – other industries, farming being a good example, are recognising and talking about mental health.”
Kay Boyden says 'there's an element of put up and shut up'
There is nothing to suggest point-to-point racing is linked to mental health issues any more than racing or other sports. Anecdotal evidence suggests the highs and lows of winning and losing – which can be seen as success or failure – of dieting and coping with physical injuries can impact on any rider, but be triggers for those who carry mental issues.
Boyden says: “If anyone is feeling like talking about this issue we urge them to get in touch. Our support line is open 24 hours by phone, text or live chat via email. Once they are in touch we can support them.”
Coping strategies help Sansome
Former leading amateur rider Andrew Sansome welcomes the new mood within society for talking about mental health having suffered from depression which affected his wellbeing over many years.
Sansome, who was suspended from riding in races for six months by a former chief medical officer because of his mental condition, says: “At that time  it was a subject that people didn’t want to talk about, and they didn’t know how to deal with it.
“As a point-to-point rider you have to put your heart and soul into it for the season, and then find something to do for the summer. Each year it was three months of thinking ‘what am I going to do for money’?
“I haven’t been on an anti-depressant drug for ten years, but I recognise that if I become manic or high it’s hard for people around me. I’ve had relationships which broke up because of it – a manic episode can last six weeks.”
Andrew Sansome has found ways of coping with manic behaviour
When Sansome left school he worked for the late Jump trainer David Nicholson, but the realisation that he would not become a professional jockey due to increasing weight hit him hard. He says: “I wanted to stop riding completely, but my dad kept me going. Point-to-points were good for me – I could be 11st 3lb or 4lb and have five or six rides in a weekend.”
He went on to ride for many leading stables, and partnered 149 pointing winners, but was dogged by bouts of “high or manic” behaviour. Injuries were hard to deal with mentally as much as physically, because of his need to keep busy.
He recently stopped drinking alcohol, saying: “It's very easy in this game to be over celebrating success or drowning one’s sorrows,” and he uses coping strategies that help him to stay calm, maintain a positive mind and reduce mood swings. They include: “Making sure I eat a meal three times a day.
“Talking to horses, brushing them over, and just being with them.
“Taking time out to sit down and a make a cup of tea.
“Phoning friends for a chat – you learn who your friends are and I’m lucky that I have three or four of those who will pick up the phone for me.”
Phoning a friend or talking to horses have helped Sansome
John Moore’s University report shed light on topic
Motivated by society’s increasing awareness of mental health, and aware of some sad cases of people within racing who were driven to take their lives, Racing Welfare commissioned a study last year.
Carried out by Liverpool John Moore’s University, the report concluded there was ‘a need for dialogue and debate to facilitate greater well-being in the entire British horseracing industry workforce’.
The report stated of society as a whole, and not referring explicitly to racing: ‘One in five people have experienced a common clinical mental health disorder in the last 12 months; 29% of people will experience some form of mental ill-health in their lifetime; only one in three people identified with a mental disorder received professional support; suicide is the third leading cause of death in 18-24 year olds with a 4:1 ratio of men to women.’
It added: ‘. . . the study does not look to suggest that people within racing encounter increased negative mental health experiences owing to their work, but rather mental health will be expressed in a unique way within such a domain.’
A survey linked to the study received replies from 505 stable staff. In addition to the survey there were face-to-face interviews with 131 people from around Britain, of which 51 were stable staff, 30 were trainers and 15 jockeys. A majority of trainers, staff working in yards or studs and jockeys did not feel the industry provided adequate mental health support, while around a third of people in those areas of racing said there was a social stigma of being viewed negatively for accessing mental health services. Slightly more than half felt a need to appear ‘strong’ in front of colleagues or peers.
On that note it suggested campaigns to tackle the concept that being ‘tough’ within the sport involves working continuously or when in pain, and to educate and tackle the stigma associated with ‘lost bottle’ i.e. fear of riding. “This issue should not be viewed as a weakness that is irreversible, but should be normalised and addressed,” said the study.
It listed specific recommendations on enhancing good mental health, including a jockey peer support system to tackle issues around stigma and silence; a generic debt collection management system to help trainers manage bad debts from owners; business support to equip new and small trainers with skills on managing staff; delivery of ‘in-house’ mental health education at training yards and diversification of help for staff in geographically isolated areas, enabling them to engage with support through phone lines etc.
Case studies echo anecdotal evidence
Among jockeys interviewed – from Flat, Jump and Amateur/Point-to-Point racing – financial uncertainty and finding rides were the main causes of stress just ahead of maintaining an appearance of success or status. One interviewee said: “ . . . I think people get into a rut and just don’t want to seek help or anything like that,” while a jockey described feeling depressed while driving home after two rides at Doncaster failed to go as planned. “Just a phone call was all you need really. Just advice,” said the jockey.
One said: “Starving . . . it’s the weight making that’s the hardest thing and because that’s so hard it ruins everything else. You can’t enjoy any part of the day really – even if you win you’re more interested in getting something to eat and lying down rather than enjoying the moment.”
Trainers spoke of long hours, having to take calls from owners at unsociable times and financial worries as causes of stress, and a number remarked that they needed to be seen as ‘strong’ by those around them. One said that if a trainer sought help for mental health it could be viewed as a ‘turn off’ for owners.
Stable staff concerns were headed by ensuring wages covered personal costs and feeling they must work even when sick, ill or injured. One described “a ruthless industry and it almost makes you a bit ruthless towards yourself because you feel like you need to be that way in order to survive or in order to be successful . . . ” The physicality of working with thoroughbreds, of getting hurt or losing their nerve and of wondering ‘what else can I do apart from working in racing’ were other key areas of concern for stable staff.
Racing’s Support Line 24/7 telephone no: 0800 6300 443 (24hr access to Racing Welfare services, includes listening ear service for times when people just need someone to talk to)
Website: www.racingwelfare.co.uk (includes live chat service to talk to Support Line team)
Online self-help advice and guidance – www.support.racingwelfare.co.uk
Text – 07860 079 043