In the final part of a short series considering mental health issues, Carl Evans reflects on the highs and lows of racing...
It would be no surprise if some followers of this website questioned the need for this week’s series of articles devoted to mental health.
In a way that explains why we felt it was worth opening up the subject on pointtopoint.co.uk, the leading digital voice for the sport. Mental health is an invisible entity, and while many people live day to day coping with the ups and downs it is invariably hard to judge if someone is finding the downs more prevalent than the ups?
Earning a living or part income from point-to-pointing may be perceived as a healthy, fresh-air existence, yet people from all walks of life can suffer mental ill health.
Anecdotally it seems trigger influences come in many forms – financial concerns, injuries, dieting, family issues, broken hearts. A lack of sleep or reliance on drugs or alcohol become parallel problems. Once in the loop people feel bad about themselves and the world in which they live.
There is also genetics, the minds and bodies with which we are born, which could be the single biggest factor in the ways in which we thrive or merely survive.
It would take a professor of psychology to give an accurate steer on genetics and mental health, but a report by the news agency Reuters in 2008 produced a summary which I found understandable. It looked at how genetics and environmental distress sometimes act together to produce mental illness, and quoted Dr Thomas Insel, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, who said: “It is not a question of genes versus environment. It is a question of how genes interact with whatever the environmental factors might be. And that is probably true of all of the disorders that we call mental illness.
“There is going to be a genetic factor that gives you the risk. And it all depends on what happens in a person’s lifetime.”
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows the suicide rate for men in England and Wales in 2019 was the highest for two decades. Covid-19 and the restrictions it places upon our lives is unlikely to be helpful in that regard.
The highs and lows of winning
Writing about sport, about horse racing and point-to-pointing has generated my interest in aspects of the human mind, the last unexplored place on the planet.
Whenever I attend a Gold Cup, Grand National or Derby, or even the lower-scale delights of the evening hunters’ chase meeting at Cheltenham, I am aware of the barely-describable joy surrounding the winners, and the disappointment, and even abject gloom, for the losers.
I find the drive home from Aintree following the Grand National a curious experience – the euphoria and excitement that surrounds the winner of the world’s greatest steeplechase is tangible. It gives me a lift, even though I have nothing to do with the winning horse.
In the media scramble to grab quotes from the winning connections, the placed jockeys, the beaten jockeys, my adrenalin is pumped into orbit, and then a few hours later I’m at the wheel of my car feeling quite empty. What must it be like for the jockeys who thought they were on a horse with a great chance but find that aspiration dashed? On many occasions I have been tasked with gaining quotes from these battered disconsolates as they troop back to the weighing room – it’s not my favourite job.
That’s the point about assessing the human mind. We never truly know how other people are feeling. We understand that a broken leg can be painful and inconvenient so we make allowances for the sufferer if they are scratchy or irritable – being sympathetic to someone suffering from a condition of the mind is far tougher.
Former rider Andrew Sansome and current rider Byron Moorcroft have talked this week about how tough they have made life for those around them when in a manic state of mind, and we can only guess at the suffering for those left bereaved when a sufferer takes their own lives. Most of us would be clueless about what to do if we suspected someone might be capable of such a step, which is why for those of us linked to racing the charity Racing Welfare is an easy first port of call.
Shocked by loss of the cheeriest chap
In my limited awareness mental health had little or no association with horse racing/point-to-pointing until, in January 2018, I received a text saying the racehorse trainer and former champion rider Richard Woollacott had taken his life.
I was standing on a mountain in France and you could have knocked me down one of its steep sides and I would have felt nothing, so shocked was I by that text. I was to learn that Richard suffered periods of mental ill health. I only knew him as the cheeriest chap in the sport.
Richard Woollacott, who took his own life in 2018
Many years earlier a dim light came on in my mind – or maybe a light came on in my dim mind – when an amateur rider reflecting on a superb season told me they had taken an overdose some months after it finished. During the season they had run on adrenalin, thriving on the pressure of chasing winners, of the unalloyed joy of winging the last, gaining half a length, and outgunning a rival, and then in one second they dismounted on their final ride of the season and there was nothing. Everyone went home for the close season and the rider was left feeling, what’s it all about?
I have discovered that swathes of other sportsmen and women have experienced similar feelings of loss following a great achievement. Get real, I hear sceptics say. Why would anyone who has experienced such a high feel anything but elation? Well, that’s how the human mind can work.
Sadly, Richard Woollacott was not the last racing person I admired who has died while experiencing the condition we loosely term mental ill health, although it must seem so much more complex to the person who takes that route. Each time I thought ‘What?! They had so much to live for?’.
Andrew Sansome says suicide is not a coward’s way out. “You have to be brave,” to do that he says, and he has a point.
Point-to-pointing is for most a fantastic sport in which that marvellous animal the horse is at the core, and on that note mental wellbeing, as much as mental ill health, is a subject which the charity Racing Welfare is keen to promote.
Its website has a wealth of material on the subject of mental health, on how to feel well, how to take simple steps when feeling not so well, and contact options for anyone who feels they should be coping better.
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