Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mental Illness: The Pendulum Swings Quickly

Justin Duchscherer, a pitcher for the Oakland Athletics who I have my own mental pendulum about (used to call him douchererer for his douchey performances in the bullpen), has never completed a major league season, as far as I know, due to injuries. But last year, he made a public announcement that he suffered from depression. I thought this was pretty awesome, as did some some psychology groups who acknowledged that previously, the macho man culture of professional sports had never allowed a silly little thing like mental health to slow a professional athlete down. I love that the article above even includes the "There's no crying in baseball" clip, as I say that all the time. I mean, there's no way Michael Vick had a mental illness- sane people fight, electrocute, and drown dogs all the time. I found a Sports Illustrated article from 2003 about mental illness, and I know there is such a thing about sports psychologists, but really, that's it.

I've been wanting to blog about this for a long time. I don't know, it just seemed like maybe, just maybe, it was an opening up in a very closed, quiet, fake-ass world. There are a lot of rules in baseball about showing emotions. Players are not supposed to argue balls and strikes with the umpires. I'm sure they're pissed off, angry, frustrated, saddened, and a whole range of emotions about calls- pitchers and batters alike. (It's actually a written, not unspoken rule: 9.02.) Unlike in football or hockey or some other more violent sport (which address at least anger, but which I'm not familiar with)- baseball does not have a lot of brawls. Frustrated and angry players might get angry, but they usually- I can't give a ratio because I'm sure it's the vast majority of the time- don't act on them. They generally just walk off of the field after at bats or innings. Sometimes they'll show their frustration with a gesture or they'll throw their bats or other gear to the ground. Sometimes they'll demonstrate happiness. Sometimes they'll jaw at each other. But usually, that's it. Occasionally there will be a well publicized incident like the recent one between A-Rod and Braden, over a breach of etiquette, and an occasional bench clearing brawl, or bats or balls or chairs tossed into fans. Players getting angry at fans are considered considerable flaws in character or temper tantrums- not usually anything to do with mental illness.

In searching for a description of Geertz's anthropological description of cockfighting as an explanation for culture, I found an article that couldn't be more perfect: Baseball, Cockfighting, and Culture" by Joe Trumino. Geertz explains that cockfighting allows men to act out through the fight what they feel about each other (short version, obviously. Read both articles, really.) As Trumino writes:
It creates a kind of fantasy world wherein the things Americans most cherish become real, at least temporarily and contextually. In addition, baseball even gives Americans something they often feel they lack, control over events. At the ball field, when things and players don’t perform up to expectations, fans can freely and unrelentingly show their displeasure, they can boo. They can bask in the illusion that they are masters of their domain.
The players are just players in this drama. They aren't supposed to have emotions: "Judgments about these men are based mainly on how they perform as batters, pitchers, fielders, and base runners." Everything is highly ritualized, and private life is supposed to be private.

So, Duchscherer going public was a big deal for a few reasons. It was an acknowledgment that baseball players are human beings. Acting out drama for our benefit is great, it serves a purpose, but baseball players are human. Even Sports Illustrated gets that (do they know that swimsuit models are human? Discussion for another time.) I was excited- maybe one day someone in baseball will admit they're gay. That would be cool, too. Or would it break up the fantasy of baseball too much? Would people argue that that made baseball "political"? Since sexual orientation is obviously political.

I'm on a little tangent here. There's two points I wanted to make, and I got a little sidetracked on the back ground. The first is that it's gotten painful to watch Duchscherer pitch. It was almost always painful to pitch (remember I used to call him doucherererer) because of his mediocre performance. Of course, he was actually a very good pitcher, but the A's suck, and I had mean nicknames for all of them. Since his return to baseball at the beginning of the year, he's a very good pitcher, but, like every pitcher, he throws bad pitches sometimes, or the umpire makes a bad call, or a batter hits a good pitch. And I cringe at the prospect. Or he reacts. And I'm worried- what will happen to him after the game? How does Duchscherer feel? The baseball fan (read the Trumino article) does not want to think about this. It's a fantasy. (I'm now thinking about the linguistics of both "fan" and "fantasy baseball.") I want to see Duchscherer pitch, I want to see him pitch well, I want the A's to win, I want to think of mean-ass nicknames when he sucks, I want him to come back and prove me wrong. I don't want to worry about his feelings. Granted, I'm sometimes too empathetic/worried about people's feelings, but it's out there. It was not hard to find this short clip of Duchscherer losing his cool when Manager Bob Geren came to take him out of his game. The baseball fan in me can chuckle, the human in me who has heard of his struggles with depression is concerned for what came after.

And now for part two, the part that finally got me to write about this, since I've had it in my "to be blogged" forever. I read this great article on big pharma and the rise of mental illness from AlterNet/Twitter today. The article talks about how after Prozac came out, psychiatrists used the "it's like diabetics and insulin" catch phase to convince people that an "imbalance in serotonin" was the cause of depression- it was a chemical thing. The article cites astonishing increases in the number of people on medication, disability, and diagnosed as "mentally ill." So, popularizing and destigmatizing mental illness allowed for people like Justin Duchscherer to "come out": to allow the general public to acknowledge that mental illness is not something that has to be locked in the attic. Gee, even baseball players can be depressed. On the other hand, there's no proof that it's a "serotonin thing." Louis Menand recently published a book review in the New Yorker on the same subject. Menand writes that "Greenberg is repeating a common criticism of contemporary psychiatry, which is that the profession is creating ever more expansive criteria for mental illness that end up labelling as sick people who are just different."

So which is it? Am I happy that Duke is "coming out," in effect popularizing and destigmatizing mental illness, making baseball players "real?" Or am I frustrated, because baseball players aren't supposed to be real, they're just actors in a game, played for my benefit? Or worse, am I befuddled about the current state of modern psychiatry, because we're not all sick, and if you look at the statistics, Americans are so sick that we all need some serious drugs and shrinks? It's all of them. I believe that Duke needs help and I'm glad he is getting it, and I hope he continues to get it, and that he will inspire other professional and un-professional athletes to get it. I also resent that I have to care- baseball is baseball, dude, it's supposed to be fun for me! I have enough to worry about! And, I resent that big pharma is screwing with our health. Some people are sick, but our society is becoming pathologized. That's sick.

ETA: Now I feel like the douche. Duchscherer left yesterday's game with an injury. And he wasn't happy about it either.


Mick O said...

Well, Khalil Greene's promising career is now pretty much over. He was very open about his mental issues. "Anxiety" basically ended his pro career.

Here is an article from last year mentioning other players goin' on the DL for mental issues. It looks as if Greene is losing his battle.

But, contrast that with new information suggesting anti-depressives are often a load of bollocks

Do mental health issues need de-stigmatizing? Or are they already over-diagnosed and over-medicated?

Anonymous said...

may the blessing be with you.........................................

Anonymous said...

the best as always thanks ........................................