They’re known for their courage and determination out on the racetrack. But for some jockeys, it’s when they’re out of the saddle that they face their toughest battles.
Last year, Mark Enright made headlines in Europe by citing depression as the reason he had taken time away from the sport.
“It was getting to the stage where every day was a bad day,” he says. “I was waking up in the mornings and there was nothing good about the day. I didn’t want to get up out of bed.”
The Irish jockey recounts his battle with depression in a new short documentary, Jockey Matters: Mental Health & Wellbeing, which was released in October to mark World Mental Health Day.
Enright tells the film he was surprised when a five-minute chat with a club doctor led to a conversation about depression. But he eventually returned to the track after seeking professional help.
“You can speak to a professional or you can speak to a friend,” he says. “But definitely the first step … was just taking the cork off the bottle and letting some of it out.”
The moving eight-minute film, part of the Jockey Matters series, features candid interviews with working and retired British and Irish riders, including the 2010 Grand National winner Sir Tony (AP) McCoy.
McCoy explains how as a younger rider he used to shut himself away from the world after a bad race day.
“[You’d] be thinking, this is how it goes. Don’t turn the TV on,” he says. “You’d go straight up to your room and sit … in the dark for the whole night. That was when I didn’t know any better.”
Statistics show depression affects people from all walks of life. According to beyondblue, one in six people will experience it at some stage in their life. Jockeys are no exception.
In July this year, six-time British Flat champion jockey Kieran Fallon retired from the sport following an ongoing battle with depression.
Des O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Victorian Jockeys Association, says the issue is not confined to the UK. “We’re certainly not isolated from it. It’s an issue for our people,” he says.
O’Keeffe says jockeys spend much of their careers underweight, dehydrated, food deprived and sleep deprived.
The pressures of running their own business, concerns around the dangers of the job and the highs and lows of competing are also factors, he says.
“If there’s nine races, that’s 120 starters. That means there are 111 people who are going home not achieving what they set out to achieve,” he says. “Everything they do is scrutinised, and they’re bound by a rule book thicker than the phone book.”
According to sports psychologist Michael Caulfield, that intense focus on their mistakes is a big challenge.
Caulfield, a former chief executive of the UK’s Professional Jockeys Association, says “racing demands help more than any other sport” he’s dealt with.
“They have to learn how to handle that as much as the easier bit, which is sometimes winning,” he tells the film.
Produced by the UK-based Jockey Employment and Training Scheme and the Professional Jockeys Association, Jockey Matters’ latest film is aimed at encouraging jockeys to seek help because, as McCoy says, “there’s this stigma of them being really tough … and not having any weaknesses”.
O’Keeffe encourages Australian jockeys struggling with their mental wellbeing to also seek help. Support is available through the Jockey Assistance Program. “It offers 24-hour access to an outstanding counselling service, which is highly utilised and provides a high level of support,” O’Keeffe says.
If you’re experiencing difficulties, help is available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.
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