By Hans Ebert

My parents came from a time when only “crazy people” had mental health problems. From what I know, in those days back in what was known as Ceylon, there were no psychiatrists and no tranquillisers. One just dealt with it.

Those who couldn’t, like my beautiful Auntie Berniece, downed a bottle of arak- the cheap local version of brandy- ran down to the railway tracks, put her head down on them, passed out and waited for the 6pm train to pass by and take her away with it to her next destination.

Times change and we’re now at a time when mental health issues are finally being talked about. But this usually happens only after we have lost celebrities like Robin Williams, musicians Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington from Linkin Park and many others who suffered in silence. No one heard those silent screams going off in their heads.

Recently, the Olympics has shone a light on the problems of depression when American Simone Biles withdrew from most of her events as she wasn’t mentally prepared to carry on.

Before her, tennis star Naomi Ōsaka took time out to reboot more positive energies into herself.

Closer to home, Hong Kong’s Champion Jockey Joao Moreira admitted in an interview last week that he suffered from depression during the 2019-20 racing season and called on the Hong Kong Jockey Club to do more to address this problem, especially for those in the riding ranks.

Joao talking about his problems and how they had affected him was not a surprise.

During the interviews I have had with him recently, our talks were always about how he, in his position as Hong Kong’s champion and most popular jockey with a young family and thousands of miles away from his home in Brazil, was dealing with what is a highly restrictive lifestyle.

Frankly, I was looking to him for answers and maybe he found something of a sympatico release in the simple act of sharing his thoughts.

Anxiety problems and crosstown traffic going all over the place in one’s head when certain triggers start firing bullets is something I am well aware of and have delved into this problem very many times to understand the root cause of it.

I’ve had many chats with jockey Zac Purton about it and a couple of others in horse racing.

What’s obvious is that they/we only open up and admit to what we want others to know. The rest we wrestle with by ourselves without even those closest to us ever knowing the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Joao Moreira talking about depression is not something new to horse racing. It’s been around for longer than anyone in the industry would care to admit. It could be damaging to one’s career, especially if this is a very financially successful one. But could this add to the pressure?

Years ago, racing lost jockeys Stathi Katsidis and Neil Williams to depression, and it’s a problem that’s not going to go away anytime soon. If anything, it’s going to get worse.

Especially with the clutter and negativity churned out 24/7 on social media, jockeys- and trainers- young and old- are unfair game to being verbally assaulted and abused.

Depression does not discriminate and when new technology mixes with old school anger and frustration, there’s a lethal cocktail that has a chain reaction of consequences and reactions to those not even involved in the fray.

As for the various types of depression affecting those in horse racing, looking at what more can be done is a difficult one. It’s especially difficult in a bilingual and highly charged city like Hong Kong and very much at the crossroads of its own future.

There’s also and always will be an underlying problem of trust: Do I trust the advice I am receiving? Do I trust the medication being prescribed?

The mind is a fragile place and there’s no telling how one might react to a tranquilliser.

I remember being prescribed Ativan when in Los Angeles for anxiety and having one hell of a bad reaction to it. My then-wife, seeing her new husband crumble in front of her, called the doctor who had prescribed the drug in a panic and told him what was happening to me.

There were rockets going off in my head and I had absolutely no control over anything. I started to have spasms.

The good doctor’s response was that being a new drug on the market, Ativan could affect different people differently and to switch to Valium.

Years later, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington were to hang themselves. No one saw the signs. Both had secretly being taking Ativan. And if a secret, who’s to know?

It’s like the tragic case of Robin Williams. Who knew the demons he was fighting until it was too late? But even if one knew, could this genius comedian have been saved? Did he want to be saved?

The problem is that many show sorrow and sadness when first hearing news like this. It’s not long before it becomes another emoji of a teary face whenever there’s a mention of any of these celebrities.

As for the story about Joao Moreira, sad to say, it’s barely caused a ripple. This would not have happened if the story had been about
Lewis Hamilton or Ronaldo or Virat Kohli etc.

This says something about the “personality” of horse racing and its importance to a mainstream audience and media.

Here’s where things MIGHT be able to be improved and racing shown to be more than about “the punt”. But will it ever happen if it hasn’t happened by now?

Yes, there are always ways to make anything better. We are all constantly trying to make the big bad wolf at the door go away.

The far bigger and more popular music industry has lost thousands to depression when the fame game became too much for some to handle. This is why there’s The 27 Club.

In horse racing, especially amongst jockeys, there’s the added pressures of having to always perform at the very peak of their physical and mental powers, on and off the track.

Over the years, many jockeys- and trainers-have fallen by the wayside. Comebacks are few and far between.

Fairly recently, champion jockey Glen Boss talked openly about his problems over the years in fighting this invisible disease.

He seems to have outrun those hounds from hell and even rode a winner at Randwick on Saturday.

Unless a jockey, what too often goes missing in action is having those who know nothing about the sport realise the very much shackled lifestyles these athletes have to lead- if they are to stay in the game.

Racing executives who fail to understand the flip side of the coin doesn’t help. And help in the form of support is the first step to understanding the problem. It’s not just paying glib lip service and thinking things can continue being peachy keen.

During these lockdown days and nights with social distancing and travel restrictions, what little time there was between the Hong Kong racing seasons to take a break, return refreshed and get back into the highly competitive world of race riding, is now gone.

This adds to the anxiety of an already complex situation. Those mental triggers start working overtime.

This isn’t a competition to see who can and cannot handle pressure. It’s about personal choices.

As with anything in life, if something is crippling your life, you work through it or get out.

If going to stay in the game as this is the only career path one knows, as mentioned, there can always be better “systems” put into place. Often, you’re the only one who can do it. It’s a mind game played by one.

If looking for outside help, are these ever good enough? Does one trust them enough for barriers to come down and to help the healing process?

It’s not unlike being an alcoholic and committed to taking those twelve steps towards sobriety.

Are what’s around only bandaids in a constantly changing world- and nothing that’s really going to make a lasting difference?

I am asking as I don’t have any answers. I wish I did as I know only too well how much it affects those suffering from depression- and those closest to them.

#mentalhealth #horseracing #joaomoreira #depression #robinwilliams #chriscornell #chesterbennington #ativan #help