Under the Rug: Depression Among Equestrian Athletes Is Very Common But Still Taboo

Riders will talk openly about their physical injuries and scars like a badge of honor. But they rarely discuss depression or suicide.

It doesn’t make any sense.

How can successful people who seem to have it all – money, love, an exciting career – be depressed to the point of committing suicide? Dr. Gabrielle (Gabby) Ledger, a psychiatrist and event rider from Bowmanville, Ontario, has treated dozens of equestrians for mental health illnesses. In an effort to educate and better understand depression, she explains who is most at risk, how to spot symptoms and ways to treat this chronic condition.

How to spot depression

The most common, telltale signs of depression is feeling low, sad, and discouraged. If these feelings persist almost all day, and almost every day for at least two weeks in a row, that’s the No. 1 sign to seek help. In teens, it can be more of an irritable, angry mood.

If you suddenly find that it’s a chore to go to the barn and you’re not finding your happy place on your horse anymore, that’s called anhedonia. It’s the loss of enjoyment. That’s a pretty alarming depression symptom. And then the other boxes we check are: decreased interest, decreased energy, changes in motivation, changes in concentration, changes in memory, appetite, sleep and then suicidal ideation or hopelessness.

If suddenly a rider goes from seeing themselves planning their competitive season, looking at an upcoming FEI event and counting back shows – that future orientation is showing positivity rather than hopelessness. But if all of a sudden they start saying things like “It’s not worth it. This sport is just for people who are lucky or rich”, that’s the kind of thinking that you start to see in someone that is depressed.

It’s not grief, it’s an illness

Bereavement is not the same thing as depression. It can look very similar but it’s when someone is displaying those symptoms after a loss. You can grieve an identity. You can decide you’re no longer going to be a rider. That can be very similar to grieving the death of your horse. The grieving process is time-limited and should turn around on its own. Whereas a major depressive episode, that’s an illness. When it’s not getting better with time, you should seek support.

Anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin, and they absolutely run in families.

It’s genetic and can be a life-long disability 

There’s an important genetic component to depression. If you’re an identical twin and your twin has a mood disorder, you have a 40-to-60 percent chance of having one yourself. The genetics of depression are inherited in the same chromosomes as anxiety. Anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin, and they absolutely run in families.

For a lot of people, depression is an illness that they might struggle with their whole lives but they may only experience a few episodes of major depressive symptoms. Then the rest of the time they may be well. And then there are other people who might experience chronic symptoms of depression for decades.

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It was No. 2 until last year when it eclipsed cardio-vascular disease.

It’s everywhere but it’s just not something that people share in polite circles on a regular basis. I can guarantee that probably 50 percent of the people you know, at some point in their lives, have experienced either depression or an anxiety disorder at a clinically-significant level. It remains a hush-hush topic. That’s starting to change. But we’ve got to undo years of stigma first, and that’s not going to happen overnight.

There are incredibly successful people who have been plagued with depression their whole lives.

It affects successful, rich people too

Depression is common in high-performance athletes and everyday Joes. It’s a difficult life and your genetics are what they are. You can be a super high-achieving individual but still have a predisposition to a mood disorder. There are incredibly successful people who have been plagued with depression their whole lives.

How to prevent and treat

We’re starting to understand that inflammation of the brain itself can be a precursor. Medical studies show that inflammation and low levels of vitamin D can be the triggering event for the beginning of a chronic psychotic disorder.

Sleep, exercise and nutrition are really, really helpful.

There are ways to treat mood disorders without prescribed medication. Sleep, exercise and good nutrition are key. These aspects are as important as medication, and in many cases are much more necessary and effective.

Exercise is incredibly beneficial for depression and when you stop exercising, you can relapse.

Sleep is essential. You do all your healing and growing in your sleep. So if you’re not getting enough quality sleep your return to wellness is going to be delayed or stopped.

A healthy diet is another important component. There is evidence that shows sugar can be bad for mood disorders and certain fats can improve brain health.

You cannot recover from depression when vitamin D levels are low. There are other important micro-nutrients that could play a factor: if you are iron-deficient, your energy is potentially going to be low.

The importance of friends 

It would be reasonable to try the methods above first unless you are feeling suicidal. When symptoms are mild to moderate, sometimes the right friendship can pull somebody out of a depression. But when symptoms are severe the biology of the depression, the way the depression impacts the central nervous system, needs to be reversed.

Go see a family doctor

If things are so bad that you’re not functioning at all, go see a family doctor. One-in-two patients that walk through a primary care doctor’s door have mental-health issues and symptoms. He/she will know how to get you on the right path or might refer you to a psychiatrist. There are more than 70 types of medication used to treat depression, as well as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to alternative methods like cannabis and ketamine. Through the guidance of a qualified physician, there are many avenues to try to see what works for a specific individual and their very specific symptoms. There is no “one size fits all” approach to mental health.

How NOT to treat it

People try to self-medicate with alcohol all the time. In the short-term, alcohol is a very potent anti-anxiety medication. But more frequently, it makes things worse.

In 10 years it might not be a taboo subject anymore.

Lifting the veil

Just the quiet presence of a horse can be healing and therapeutic for many people. Riders are lucky in a way that sometimes, their best buddy, their best friend – their horse – can be their therapist.

Riders will talk openly about their physical injuries and scars like a badge of honor. But they don’t discuss depression and suicide.

In 10 years it might not be a taboo subject anymore. You might have people saying ‘actually, that happened to me and it was awful, and I’m going to talk about it because I don’t want people to feel ashamed‘. It’s bad enough that you’re sick and to throw shame on top of it, for what other illness do we do this to ourselves? You don’t go ‘I broke my arm so I’m going to hate myself for it, and feel like I’m a failure for it.

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