Ian Thorpe is the latest well known athlete to admit problems with depression.

Ian Thorpe is the latest well known athlete to admit problems with depression. Photo: Ryan Pierse

It's been more than two years since I made public my experience with mental illness.

As my story began circulating on the internet, people started contacting me. People from all over the world, all walks of life. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, white-collar and blue-collar workers, young, old, rich, poor, some people I knew and many more I did not.

People told me my story was similar to their story. Or the story of someone close they knew.

Jonathan Trott left the recent Ashes tour early during to mental illness.

Jonathan Trott left the recent Ashes tour early during to mental illness. Photo: Cameron Spencer

The letters and messages I received were at times personal, confronting, but also inspiring. It was then I came to realise that suffering can assume meaning when it becomes a catalyst for positive change.

Champion swimmer Ian Thorpe is the latest athlete to awaken us to depression's indiscriminate nature. English cricketer Jonathan Trott had to leave the recent Ashes tour in Australia to deal with his personal issues.

And actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's death is another poignant reminder that no amount of wealth or success immunises against the mental illness of addiction.

Clyde Rathbone overcame depression to return to the Brumbies.

Clyde Rathbone overcame depression to return to the Brumbies. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

I was lucky in a way, I was able to deal with my depression privately. I was retired from rugby at the time and I got to choose when I went public. Ian's circumstances are totally different, he's actually got this attention while he's going through the process. It would be much harder.

I sometimes imagine if I'd had to go through my battles at the time I was still playing, whether I'd be able to take the field for a game at the weekend. I don't think it would have been possible. So I can understand a decision such as Trott's.

The media spotlight can quickly become a blinding glare when mental illness strikes those in the public eye. Part of me thinks media attention on mental illness can be a positive, an antidote to the denial which allows an issue such as depression to embed itself.

It's difficult to fool oneself when reality is spread across the front page of national newspapers.

However, it is also clear that incessant media attention and reckless reporting can be a fatal final straw in battles with the black dog. Which is why mental illness should never be exploited by the media.

And, at this time, the most important people are closest friends and family.

Sport can create a strange bubble for people to exist within. The normal demands of life are disguised by adrenalin, fame and fortune.

When the bubble inevitably bursts and a sporting career finishes, athletes who've defined themselves as brands rather than people can struggle to establish meaning and purpose in the world.

Mental illness appears to be everywhere. Hiding in plain sight, camouflaged only by the stigma that makes us look the other way.

Men in particular appear unable to even scratch the surface of emotional honesty.

Part of this problem is that we define men in extremely narrow terms. Men are tough, strong, un-breakably independent warriors. We're far more comfortable with shedding blood than tears.

Yet some of the bravest feats have nothing to do with this definition of masculinity.

I recently attended an event hosted by local charity Menslink. A man in a suit got up to speak. What followed was a display of courage far exceeding anything I've seen on a rugby field (or in any sporting contest for that matter).

The man in a suit opened his story by claiming that he was the ''someone'' we all refer to when we say ''there's always someone worse off than us''. He recounted the impacts of two deaths in his family, trying to comprehend a world in which poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse and alcohol and drug abuse were commonplace. It was hard not to agree.

His story went on. Bullying, religious indoctrination, caring for his two disabled siblings from a young age. Somehow this man in a suit had managed to complete five degrees, raise two children of his own and become well respected in his chosen professional and artistic fields.

Don't get me wrong. I can think of few things more troubling than a world where men articulate their every emotion. And yet I'm equally concerned by our world - a place in which masculinity and emotional honesty are considered mutually exclusive.

On average there are more than 2000 suicide deaths a year in Australia, averaging six per day, of which 75 per cent are men.

Is there any good to come from the scrutiny Ian Thorpe is experiencing? Perhaps it's that his pain can have a purpose. Perhaps we can begin to address the elephant in the room by asking simple questions, by starting conversations, by actually doing something more meaningful than sharing things on social media.

To be depressed is to be lost at sea, drifting ever so slowly until the shore is no longer in sight. Until swimming in any direction seems pointless. Until drowning seems like a good idea.

While I'm grateful for much of what depression has taught me, there are some 2000 Australians who never make it back to shore each year.

Who are we to watch them drown when a simple question might be all the rescuing they need?

Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 131 114; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.