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Brave depression battle: Marino, 22, quits

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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"I realize that with the bad there is also a lot of good. So many good people in the world, I know that for sure. Thanks for the positivity. Makes my heart smile :)"

That was 4:03 p.m. Eastern time Monday, and Canadian tennis player Rebecca Marino's heart was smiling. She had said so in those two tweets combined, with an added smiley face.

Did you see any pain in those words? Hear any hurt? Because less than five hours later, you could sure see it on her Twitter feed. It had inexplicably turned from smiley faces to darkness. Then she abruptly said goodbye, and deleted and eliminated both her Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Two days later on Wednesday, she retired from tennis at age 22, saying she has suffered from depression for years. Stepping away from the game, she said, is best for her happiness.

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"I've had days where I can't get out of bed, can't even put my clothes on,” she said. "It's hard to describe, but you have this smothered feeling of gray ...

"It got to the point last February where I couldn't go on. I opened up to my family, and it was the best thing I've ever done. It's important for you to talk with somebody and tell them what you're going through ... If I can share my story and change one person's outlook on life, I've reached my goal. Depression is nothing to be ashamed of."

That's a hell of a message, one that people might need to hear now more than ever. I wonder how many people really believe it. Mental health is a timely, major, important issue.

Do we even have a system for recognizing mental health needs, or for working on them? The issue is tied now to the gun control issue, to teen suicides. It'll even win Oscars, with the movie Silver Linings Playbook.

This is bigger than one young, up-and-coming tennis player. Up and down. But her story is being told all wrong just when it really needs to be told right. The media have cheapened it, turned it into something about cyberbullying, a cool word that can draw clicks online.

In 2010, Marino took a set off Venus Williams at the U.S. Open. Afterward, Williams said, "Now I know what it's like to play myself." In 2011, Marino was ranked No. 38 in the world. But last year, she took seven months away from the tour.

She had returned and started working her way back. And this past Sunday, The New York Times, having talked to Marino, suggested that negative messages to her online had played a role in pressuring her to step away that first time. It talked about the damaging effects of that cyberbullying.

And when she quit the tour again this Wednesday, other media followed the Times' research. Just Google cyberbullying and Rebecca Marino. You'll see it everywhere.

Cyberbullying forces tennis star off tour. Stuff like that.

It's reckless. And it's wrong. Look, let's get to the truth here: Cyberbullying did not force Marino off the tour last year. It did not force her off the tour this week, either.

The negativity bothered her, but it wasn't the cause. It was a symptom. Don't point the finger the wrong way. No one has quit sports because of mean tweets. All you have to do is delete your Twitter account.

The harsh comments – she told the New York Times about gamblers who had lost money on her, then told her they hoped she died – didn't force her to run. At most, maybe her depression made those comments bigger than they would have been to most people.

By 6:30 p.m. Monday, the smiley face was gone: "Some people think I'm too sensitive," she tweeted. "I disagree; I'm just being human."

Three hours later, she tweeted, in two takes: "Honestly I've had enough of the internet, twitter and facebook. I am now deleting everything. Heck I should even throw out my computer. Thank you to all the wonderful fans for your support. You are the reason I keep going and staying positive."

It was anger and "staying positive" mixed together. That was 9:47 p.m.. The same minute, this:

"So goodbye twitter!"

At 9:48, the account was gone.

Marino needs help, and it's not protection from cyber bullies. At her press conference Wednesday in her hometown of Vancouver, Canada, the media kept going back to questions about cyberbullying. Marino kept downplaying it and talking about depression.

Depression isn't unheard of in sports: Ricky Williams, Zach Greinke, hockey player Rick Rypien, who committed suicide after taking multiple leaves of absence for depression.

Ten years ago, Jim Shea had become a world champ in skeleton, and all but earned a spot in the Olympics. He told Sports Illustrated how he felt about it.

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"It was total emptiness, like I didn't even care. "The joy of winning? I could have broken a world record and won the lottery on the same day and not been happy about it."

According to SI, it took a U.S. Olympic Committee psychologist referring him to a psychiatrist, before depression was diagnosed. Shea didn't believe him.

Don't think of this as a sports issue, but as a societal issue that affects athletes, too.

Marino said it was only in the past two or three years that she realized she was suffering from depression, but that it had been a problem for about four to six years. That would take her back to when she started touring the world.

We've seen this so many times in tennis, and it has been given neutralized descriptions, such as burnout. A teenager has a hard enough time coping at home.

Justine Henin left the tour, didn't know what to do with herself, then came back and talked openly about mental health.

"I don't think things are going to be the same as before," Henin said at the Australian Open in 2010, shortly after she had returned to the tour. "I learned a lot of things in the last 18 months, a lot of things on myself," she said at the 2010 Australian Open, vowing that things would be different. "I wouldn't say I've changed, but I probably grew up, and I realized that I was somebody except being only a tennis player.

"And this person is really important to me now."

Remember, Henin was already an adult at the time. Still, her return didn't last long.

Mental health is not an easy thing to self-diagnose, or admit, anyway. It took Marino a few years. I looked through a few years of Marino's Twitter posts, and saw few hints.

There was this: "It's super easy for someone to put hurtful things online, but so difficult to not take it personally."

And last week, this: "Definitely need to #endthestigma of mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar in our society."

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On New Year's Eve: "Jan 1st means a fresh start to another year! I have a feeling 2013 is going to be a wonderful year :)"

That was eight weeks ago. She wrote about family, tennis, music, her love for corny jokes: "What did the lens say to the police officer?" ...  I've been framed!!”

Now, she is looking for a normal life, talking about school and a regular job.

In November, she tweeted about an abdominal strain, "gotta take care of the body."

It was an easy pain to understand. Now, she's got to take care of the mind.

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