Taking the reins with #JockeyMatters – how jockeys are being supported to have good mental health

Paul Struthers, CEO of the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA), blogs about his personal experience of mental health and how the Jockeys Employment and Training Scheme and PJA are working together to improve the mental wellbeing of jockeys.

I first got into horse racing working as a cashier in a betting shop in Nottingham when I was a student in the mid-90s. After graduating, I started full-time as a betting shop manager and worked a second job in a bar on Friday and Saturday nights to top-up my relatively meagre wage of £9k a year. After a few months of burning the candle at both ends – way too much at one end in particular - I was in a terrible state both physically and mentally, and looking back was suffering from depression and on the verge of breakdown. 

I didn’t get help or talk to anyone about it – my mum died when I was 12 so feeling deeply unhappy at times had been a not infrequent occurrence since then - but thankfully a lifestyle and job change eventually helped me out of the mental funk I was in.   

A few years later – having moved to London and started working for horse racing’s governing body – I experienced a really deep depression. I couldn’t get up, couldn’t concentrate, I had little if anything to look forward to or enjoy and I was drinking too much. My life was a misery and it was making the life of those around me pretty miserable too. You know how it is.  

Eventually I thought to myself “I really need help” and went to my GP, who was very good but could only offer tablets (Seroxat and SSRI if memory serves me right). I really wanted to talk to someone – I’d never really spoken to anyone about mum’s death some 15 years earlier – but it wasn’t an option on the NHS at that time. The first person I told was my boss and I’ll never forget how amazing and supportive his attitude was.  

That, in itself, was a big step and and not long after I arranged to see a counsellor privately. It was a revelation. The relief of finally being able to speak to someone about everything was like a huge weight lifting off my shoulders. I stopped taking the tablets after the first month’s dose and within two months was feeling as well and as happy as I’d ever felt.  

I’ll always be grateful to my then boss for his attitude and support. He treated it no differently to me having any other ailment that might have affected my work and it made me realise what a difference such an approach and attitude can make to someone suffering from a mental health issue.   

Fast forward 13 years and I’m now the Chief Executive of the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA). I’m very aware of my mental health and, while I’ve on occasion felt the signs of another slump back into depression, I’ve not suffered from depression since.   

I’d long since been conscious of what jockeys put themselves through as part of their occupation but it was only when I joined the PJA I fully comprehended it. Jockeys are self-employed. The have to ‘make-weight’ so have a restricted diet, sometimes very restricted. They spend hours in the car. They’re up at the crack of dawn and often not home until very late. They have the constant risk of injury (followed round by an ambulance every time they go out to ride). They ride hurt. They have no discernible break (we race 362 days of the year in Britain, next year 363). 

Jockeys have uncertain income and, like all sports, it’s fiendishly competitive. Their average earnings after expenses, are between £20k and £25k. While the PJA and Injured Jockeys Fund did offer support for mental health, it was fairly limited and wasn’t particularly well advertised. 

As members of the Professional Players Federation, I was acutely aware that we were lagging far behind some other sports, especially the work of the Professional Cricketers Association, Rugby Players Association, League Managers Association and Professional Footballers Association. 

Combined with my personal experience of depression, the life jockeys lead and the risk factors they face, this led me to be open in seminars and interviews about my issues. We also became signatories to the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation. 

We launched our Mental Wellbeing helpline last year. This provides jockeys with a dedicated 24-hour helpline and, more importantly, rapid access to face-to-face support from qualified experts. It’s run by an organisation called Cognacity and funded by Stobart Group’s sponsorship of the Jockeys Championships. Since its launch, we’ve helped or are helping 15 to 20 jockeys with face-to-face support to improve their mental health. 

We’re also in the process of totally changing how young jockeys are trained, and through the work of Lisa Delany, who does an amazing job running the Jockeys Employment and Training Scheme (JETS), we’re now starting to provide jockeys with resilience training and personal development plans.  

Lisa also had the idea of producing a series of educational videos under the banner of #JockeyMatters, aimed mainly at young jockeys but also at the wider jockey population.   

The latest of these videos, launched by JETS to coincide with World Mental Health Day, focuses on mental health and features an inspiring interview with Mark Enright, an Irish-based jockey who was the first to be open about his battle with depression. It also features Sir AP McCoy, Grand National winning jockeys Leighton Aspell and Daryl Jacob, and Michael Caulfield. 

Michael was one of my predecessors at the PJA and is now a highly regarded sports psychologist who switched careers having been motivated to do so by witnessing what jockeys put themselves through both physically and mentally.  In the video he offers the following, invaluable advice, which applies equally to sport and everyday life: 

The world’s best coach I’ve ever met in sport recently told me the greatest strength you have is to ask for help. In the past it was seen as a sign of weakness but that’s total nonsense.” 

Please watch the video by following @JETS4Jockeys or via www.jets-uk.org. We hope it plays a part in further eroding the stigma attached to depression and mental health. If it inspires just one person to recognise they need help, feel no shame in asking for it and take the first step on the path to getting better, then it will have done its job.