The life of a footballer, or indeed any professional athlete, is one fans envy; the glory, the money, the fact they’re being paid to do a job an ordinary fan would probably do for free. It makes them seem superhuman to us mortals. But what about the person behind the fame and Luis Vuitton washbag? What about when the dream turns into a nightmare and we see the real human behind the veneer?
As males we’re told from an early age to “man up”, were told that “boys shouldn’t cry” and all the usual “stiff upper lip” macho nonsense. Depression is an unseen illness, there are no outward physical symptoms, and even in 2018 people who claim to be living with the symptoms of depression are sometimes thought of as weak minded or are merely making it up. The real shame in all of this is that some young boys and adolescents actually believe this and by the time they move into adulthood they’re a lot less likely to discuss their feelings (something which is seen as a feminine trait) especially with their peers. Now imagine you’re a footballer, from the time you’re barely into your teens you’re taught to be strong, both mentally and physically, to be better than everyone else. This elitist attitude is certainly a good trait when we’re moulding our next generation of footballers, however it magnifies those fears of weakness and isolation when mental health problems arise.
There have been many well publicised cases of players receiving help for mental health conditions; Chris Kirkland, George Green, Stan Collymore, Darren Eadie, Aaron Lennon, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams, Adrian Mutu, Fernando Ricksen, Andrew Cole and Paul Merson, to name a handful. Some of those players are a big presence on the pitch, a captain, the face of their club. Even Juventus legend, Gianluigi Buffon, sought treatment for depression in 2003. During an interview later on he recalled the “dark periods” he had experienced. It is safe to assume if a hugely successful and iconic player such as Buffon can experience depression then absolutely anyone can. One may ask the question “what does he have to be depressed about?” But when you’re in that zone nothing else matters; the money, the big house, the adulation of the fans. Nothing. One would easily give it all up in a heartbeat just to feel better again.
If there is anything good to come from their struggles it is that their public recognition of the illness has given the courage to a number of fans and players to admit they need help. Former Arsenal captain, Tony Adams, who was jailed in December 1990 for drink driving as a result of years of alcoholism, set up the Sporting Chance foundation in 2000. It provides a quiet, safe environment for male and female athletes to receive counselling and treatment for all types of mental health problems. They have also branched out into training and education and regularly attend organisations across the UK to spread the word of addiction and mental health treatment.
In Germany, Teresa Enke, widow of Robert Enke, formed a foundation in his name after he committed suicide on 2009. The aim of the foundation is to help educate people about depression and heart conditions in children (those familiar with Enke’s story will know his daughter died from a heart condition, aged just 2 years old). In October 2016 they developed the EnkeApp, which not only provides information on mental health treatment but also acts as an emergency help button for people contemplating suicide. By using the app an alert is sent to the emergency services and users can be located via GPS.
There are, unfortunately, more players like Robert Enke, who have attempted to take it a step further than most and tried to end their lives. Justin Fashanu committed suicide in May 1998 after experiencing problems after publicly admitting he was gay in 1990. Former Leeds United and Newcastle United player, Gary Speed, also committed suicide in 2011. Although no history of mental illness had been reported by Speed or his family, it is believed the pressures of managing his professional and personal life contributed to his decision to end his life. Speed’s death evoked action by the FA as they sent out a booklet on mental health to all their members and over 50,000 former players. It may only be a booklet but at the very least the problem is being recognised by the FA and the best case scenario is with a greater awareness of the matter tragedies like this will be prevented.
If society is to rid itself of years of ridicule and ignorance around mental health, then it needs to get away from sensationalism of the issue. It is an illness, not an affair with a porn star. By the same token when a celebrity tells the public they’re gay, why does everyone go into a frenzied meltdown? The issues of mental health and sexuality, while important to people’s lives, are no more sensational than boiling an egg. Admittedly the more exposure these issues have, the less likely they are to appear shocking. However, it is a very fine line which the media treads, in the case of The Sun, they’re about 40 miles past the line. In 2003, boxer, Frank Bruno was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The Sun ran a front page headline stating “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. This was hardly a surprise from such a less than reputable newspaper and it certainly didn’t help people accept the seriousness of the situation, instead it made a joke out of it when it was anything but.
In the 15 years since then there have been huge strides made to raise awareness of the issue, charities like Mind and CALM have helped people to better identify the symptoms and get the help they need. As a result, society is more educated and a little more compassionate towards those in the same situation, but the stigma of weakness still exists. That stigma is made up of two parts, the first being a general ignorance around mental health itself, the second is the perception towards players of the wider public. These are going to be the hardest issues to tackle and changing people’s attitudes in an increasingly opinionated world is going to be hugely difficult.
Footballers suffer from the problem that their profession is right in the middle of the media spotlight, we all know this goes with the territory and most people believe the players themselves court this hype. However, when things go wrong the feelings of guilt when they’re being expected to perform without question and be a role model, week after week, are significantly increased. Last year 160 Professional Footballer’s Association members sought advice and help for mental health problems through the association; 62 of which were current players and managers. The question is how many more out there need their help but feel too ashamed because of the stigma, to speak up?
It is churlish to place footballers above everyday people simply because of their profession. Nearly 20% of the population in the UK are affected by anxiety and depression, however in most cases because the average fan cannot relate to the life of a modern footballer they often take their admittance less seriously than people of their own peer group, as a result footballers are seen to be attention seeking or exaggerating to gain the public’s sympathy. The footballer’s feelings of how they will be perceived is part two of the stigma and places most of them in an impossible situation.
The negative perception isn’t just restricted to opposition fans and the media. In February 2018, Cowdenbeath player, David Cox, described how he was not only the target of fans but also opposition players for merely speaking publicly about his own mental health problems. No doubt it took Cox great courage and determination to not only face the fact he needed help but to also speak up and acknowledge it for everyone to hear and judge. The positive work by charities, the NHS and the football authorities has increased awareness but the David Cox case highlights the point that most footballers aren’t afforded the luxury that you or I have; namely keeping these issues within a close network of family and friends. It is little wonder footballers suffer in silence or speak up when the situation is much worse than it needs to be.
The focus for awareness amongst footballers tends to be on those who are in their 20s and 30s and are at the peak of their careers, however there also needs to be significant attention afforded to what players do with their lives after retirement. Their career is very short when compared to the majority of professions and they can be out of the game by their mid-30s, some retire earlier, whether through injury or just a simple lack of ability. Long gone are the days where a footballer retired to run a country pub or a post office, and even with vast sums of cash in reserve, not properly occupying your time can lead to all sorts of problems in later life. Without sensible investment, education and preparation for retirement during their careers a former player can easily spiral out of control and struggle with loneliness, boredom and debt and turn to drugs, alcohol and gambling, amongst others, as coping mechanisms. Many players have ended up penniless within years of retirement; Geoff Hurst had to claim unemployment benefit in the early 1980s after leaving football for a short while (it is a scandal the FA didn’t offer him a job for life, but I digress). Former Aston Villa player, Lee Hendrie, was almost another tragic case; he tried to commit suicide twice before being declared bankrupt in 2012. Former England goalkeeper, David James, is another example. Despite playing at the highest level for a number of years (and thus being expected to have accumulated a significant retirement fund) was declared bankrupt in 2014.
It is a fair argument that these players, who have had everything done for them from their youth days in the academies, aren’t used to fending for themselves, especially where financial matters are concerned. The responsibility is not only with the individual and their club but also with their agent. A good agent will obviously guide and advise the player, however in a world of ‘super agents’ who very often appear to be acting in their own interests, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn this doesn’t happen very often. It will certainly be interesting to see how the players of today manage when they retire over the next decade.
There is also a need, one which is probably more important than focusing on adult professionals, and that is to ensure tomorrow’s adults are well cared for. The necessity for clubs to be an extension of social services is more vital than ever with hundreds of young men and women being released by English academies every year. They have been fed a dream of money, fame and glory from an early age and to have it taken away and be pushed out into the big, wide world can often be too much for some. In March 2013 a young man who was released from a Premier League academy at 16 committed suicide after suffering with mental health problems following his release. Currently English academies provide education and training for players between the ages of 16 and 18, as well as teaching life skills and emotional wellbeing courses. Significantly both the Football League and Premier League manage their players’ expectations throughout their time in the academies and keep in touch with the boys and girls they release for up to four years after. It is hoped by demonstrating a dedication to the duty of care beyond the football pitch they can help prevent the tragic suicide of 2013.
Depression and other mental health conditions are extremely complex and while patients can be medicated and treated one can simply not explain the power of the mind, the power that it holds over us, every day. Depression is an abhorrent illness and one which makes the sufferer disengage from society. This is its most debilitating symptom; it makes you do exactly the opposite of what you should do in order to receive help; it prevents you from speaking up.
This article has been troubling to research and write, not least because of my own personal experiences with depression, but I am glad I did. I usually sum up my articles with a question or give the reader something to think about, this time I’ll change it slightly and bring myself into it. I too have met with my fair share of negativity on the subject of my own mental health, but I believe the world is much more educated and sympathetic than it used to be. While writing this has brought back a lot of old memories it is nothing compared to that of the tragedies face by the Enke, Speed and Fashanu families. I survived, I received help. Over the years I have managed to more or less deal with this horrific illness and I urge anyone reading this who is struggling to cope to seek help, see your doctor or speak to one of the many mental health charities out there. Former Wigan Athletic and Liverpool goalkeeper, Chris Kirkland, said in an interview, “I just want people to know that you’ve got to talk. I never saw a way out until I started talking” I agree with him; it worked for me.