Golf Digest Woman

Tears of a Clown

Continued (page 2 of 3)

Lardon encourages his famous patients to tell their stories of depression and treatment, and he's working with a major champion on the PGA Tour who is "close" to coming forward with his struggles. "Athletes are put on a pedestal as semi-super humans," he says. "If they can come out and help de-stigmatize depression, it would really help. People unnecessarily go untreated. In my practice, I lose somebody every year, and it takes a piece with you."

Professional golf hasn't been spared from suicide. In 2004, former PGA Tour player Michael Christie, 34, a former All-American at the University of South Carolina whose multiple injuries had landed him in Monday qualifiers for the then-Nationwide Tour, took his life with a gunshot to the head. A friend told Golf World magazine he suspected Christie had been suffering from bipolar disorder. In 2006, PGA Tour rookie Steven Bowditch, an Australian player who had been diagnosed with depression the year before, went 12 days without sleep before dressing in layers of heavy clothing and jumping into a swimming pool to end his life. Fortunately, he was found floating in the water and resuscitated. And in 2010, LPGA Tour player Erica Blasberg was found dead in her Las Vegas house with a plastic bag tied around her head and toxic levels of six prescription drugs in her system. Blasberg, an amateur standout whose LPGA career never met the expectations of those who had high hopes for a player with such all-American beauty, was 25 and known to her family to have struggled with mental-health issues.

Last spring, LPGA Tour player Lindsey Wright of Australia talked publicly about her four-year battle with depression. Wright, like Daly, now considers herself healthier than ever, thanks to the treatment she receives from a clinical psychiatrist. "Depression isn't something you get over straightaway," she says. "It's something you deal with. It took me two years to make the decision to go on medication. I was so against it. I didn't want it to alter my personality or affect my golf. But in the end, my personality was affected by the depression anyway. Within three days of going on the medication, I started seeing results. For me, it was clear I had a chemical imbalance."

Lardon wishes athletes would think about depression the way they think about a broken leg: as an injury that needs to be treated. "If you break your leg and your orthopedist tells you to take time off and treat it, nobody questions it. In mental illness, the apparatus that allows us to experience ourselves--our mind--is in fact what is broken. The last person to understand what's going on is usually the one affected. That's why education is so important. We know what areas of the brain are affected, and we know how to treat it."

Lardon says depression is caused by genetic and environmental factors. "We know stress affects the biology of people in a powerful way," he says. "When you're chronically stressed--maybe a player at a U.S. Open--we know your cortisol levels are high, and it's hard to sleep. People that are under chronic stress will down-regulate some of the main neurotransmitter systems in the brain." For simplicity, Lardon says we have two main neurotransmitters: serotonin and dopamine. "When your serotonin is low, it means you have an anxious depression. If your dopamine is low, you have what we call anergic depression; you have low energy, and you're really slow. Some people suffer from a hybrid of both." For this reason, all antidepressants are far from the same. "[Prescribing the right medication] is an art," Lardon says. "Good treatment means the person doesn't know they're on medicine, but their target symptoms have remitted and been mitigated."

Antidepressants aren't the only treatment. "Psychotherapy also changes brain chemistry," Lardon says. "The field is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and neuroimaging studies show that when we think in a positive way, we create new neuro networks, and it changes our chemistry. No question the most powerful combination of treatment is medicine plus psychotherapy."

Christina Kim

Kim's exuberance and cheerleading persona have served her well in three Solheim Cups, where she has a 6-2-2 record. / Photos: Stephen Szurlej, Charles Laberge (2)

Logic suggests that if 6.7 percent of the population suffers from a mood disorder, then so does one in every 15 tour players. Lardon thinks the numbers are even higher. "Athletes are at higher risk for psychiatric disorders because of a number of things," he says. "One, they're under more stress than many other people. In golf, you travel by yourself and you compete against your peers, and even though you all meet during the week, it's a superficial support, because you're trying to beat that person on the weekend. You're always traveling, and you're not home with your family. That's stressful." Players who reach the top of the game are also subjected to a different emotional pressure that comes with fame. "Regular people think, Oh, he's famous, he must have a million friends, but it's really antithetical to that. It's hard for a player to know who's his friend and who isn't. Everybody's on his payroll."

Daly says learning to finally take time for himself helped his recovery. "My biggest issue when I made it big out here was that I wanted to please everybody," he says. "It made me suffer in my career. I'm talking about so-called friends that you thought you were helping, taking advantage of you." These days, Daly puts his well-being first. "I try to do something good for myself every day," he says. "It helps to get away from what's making me mad for a little bit."

A balanced life is the key to Wright's therapy. "The hardest part of being on tour, even without any form of mental-health issue, is finding a balance between golf and life," she says. "Golf is important because it's your career, but it can become addictive, and you lose sight of what's important: being with family and doing things that you enjoy. I have to separate that and put Lindsey the person before Lindsey the golfer." The LPGA Tour considers itself a tight-knit family, and the staff takes a hands-on approach when a player is dealing with mental-health issues. "Once we are aware that a player is struggling, we reach out and keep an eye on them," says Heather Daly-Donofrio, senior vice president of tour operations. "We touch base with them regularly, and if they need resources, we provide them."

Sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, who counsels a number of tour players and has written several books on the topic of peak mental performance, believes depression is more prevalent on the LPGA Tour than on the PGA Tour. He says it's partly financial--women struggle more to earn a living because the purses are much smaller and endorsement deals are harder to get--and partly because of a greater lack of balance than the men achieve. "You tend to see parents bring up girls to sacrifice everything," he says. "I don't know where it comes from, but there's a tendency for fathers to worry that their little girls, if they date, for example, will have some guy take them away from their dream of being a golfer. You don't hear too many fathers tell their boys to never date because it's going to kill their game. You have to get past that and realize there are more advantages to being well-rounded and having a life and things other than golf. It's an important issue, because the more well-balanced your life is, the easier it is to deal with an injury."

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