September 04, 2007 11:00pm
IF anyone knows what Andrew Johns is going through, it's Australian swimming great John Konrads.
Like Johns, Konrads was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and battled a problem with alcohol.
The 1960 Rome Olympics 1500m freestyle gold medallist has written to Johns offering his support since the retired rugby league player went public with his illness and struggles with drugs and alcohol.
"I'm sure that given time, people will recognise that he's a great person who . . . suffers from an illness," Konrads said.
" There's no blame or shame in talking about it. I'm betting in a year's time Andrew will say it's the best thing that ever happened to him because it brought it out in the open."
With Johns' permission, his psychiatrist Gordon Parker detailed the extent of the former Australian rugby league captain's illness at the weekend.
Professor Parker said people with bipolar disorder – characterised by extreme highs and lows – were three to six times more likely to become alcoholics than the population generally.
He said about 15 per cent of bipolar patients eventually committed suicide – the highest rate of any psychiatric condition.
"It's not a trivial illness," said Professor Parker, who has treated other high-profile athletes with bipolar. "I'm hoping that people will focus less on the drugs and alcohol and more on the key driver, the fact that people with bipolar disorder are much more likely to take stimulant drugs and alcohol."
Well-known Australians who have been diagnosed with the condition include ex-cricketer Michael Slater, one-time Wallaby Topo Rodriguez, and businessman Rene Rivkin, who committed suicide in 2005.
Konrads said he occasionally lapsed into abusing alcohol to self-medicate his own illness despite knowing the dangers.
"You feel better for an hour and the next day, the whole problem's worse," he said. "That's an easy trap to fall into because it's socially acceptable. I still find it hard. I relapse into drinking from time to time."
Not all have been as kind to Johns as Konrads.
Some, such as Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and BeyondBlue chairman Jeff Kennett, have labelled the fallen rugby league star an appalling role model since he revealed details of his drug and alcohol abuse and bouts of depression.
But mental health expert Ian Hickie welcomed Johns' frankness, saying it was more likely to warn other young men off taking a similar path.
"It's really important to realise in this situation, we're not just talking about recreational drug use, we're talking about significant drug and alcohol problems being driven by an underlying mental health problem," he said.
"If we just see the alcohol and drug use, we'll have totally missed the point."
Professor Hickie, executive director of Sydney's Brain and Mind Institute, said Johns might make a more important contribution to Australian culture by being so honest about his problem than by his greatness on the football field.
"Young men in our society are struggling with many common mental health problems but rather than getting professional help they're using the substances that are available to them," he said.
People recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder can access a confidential education program at www.blackdoginstitute.org.au