Depression in football is regarded as something of a taboo subject. It is something that has cropped up more and more frequently over the years, and now could be argued a problem that is taken seriously.
Whilst there is so much talk of players ego’s, the vast amounts of money, and the celebrity culture that comes with being a professional footballer, the darker side that sadly does exist is so often overlooked.
A footballers vulnerability is never taken into account. The pressure’s of playing in front of thousands of people week after week, and the pressure to provide success in return for the huge amounts of money being battered about, alongside the physical and mental energy constantly needed can take its toll on a player. These pressures and strains can manifest themselves in different ways, and can often lead to depression.
It is almost a year since former Wales manager Gary Speed took his own life. Whether he was suffering from any sort of depression or mental health issue is unconfirmed, but the tragic nature of his death really made the football world sit up and take notice.
Colleagues queued up to tell us how Speed had a beautiful wife, two beautiful children, wealth and personal success. So how could he possibly be depressed?
This question proved the common misconception regarding depression – particularly amongst sports stars – which has been the root cause of the taboo nature of the subject.
Whether you are sitting on a pile of cash or not, depression can strike anyone at any time, as it is in fact a medical condition. It is not simply that Monday morning feeling, or the feeling you get when your team gets knocked out of the FA Cup. It is like breaking an arm, only the broken bits is in the chemical circuitry of the brain.
Between 20% and 25% of people will suffer from an episode of mental illness in any given year, whilst over a lifetime the risk rises to 40%. Britain has seen antidepressant prescriptions double in the last decade, whilst the world health organisation has warned that by 2030 depression will be the second only to HIV and Aids in the toll the illness exacts most on society. In other words, it is far more common than you would expect.
Going back as far as 1999, former Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore made himself unavailable for selection, citing depression as the reason. Rather than receive any sort of support from his club, his former manager John Gregory came out and said to the press: “Collymore should ask himself how it feels to be an unemployed man with four children to feed before he goes declaring himself depressed.”
Gregory may have been ill advised, or simply unaware, but his comments were undoubtably ignorant and the lack of support Collymore received took its toll on the player as he decided to retire from football at the age of 30. He was ridiculed in the media, the same way boxer Frank Bruno had been after suffering a mental breakdown.
Collymore wrote in his autobiography “Tackling my Demons” of the reasons behind his decision to call time on what had been such a promising career.
“Footballers aren’t supposed to retire when they are 30. Not unless they’re injured. Well, I was injured. I was damaged anyway. It was just that it wasn’t the type of damage that made me limp,” he wrote.
“I didn’t have dodgy knees or creaking ankles or cruciates that had to be knitted back together. Physically I was fine.
“Mentally, I was exhausted with it all. I was fried.
“I was full of resentment and bitterness and disillusionment about football and what it had done to me.”
Collymore was not the only player suffering with depression around this time, but whilst he went public many chose to suffer in silence due to fear of being ridiculed by supporters and the press.
Notorious hard man Vinnie Jones has since admitted to suffering from depression during his career, but spoke during a BBC documentary of how back then there was no support network or advice available.
“It was not recognized. Looking back now, there would have been plenty of lads who felt like me and were suffering in silence. There was nobody to talk to. The managers aren’t trained in things like that”, he said.
“If you were bottom of the league and one of the lads turned round and said look lads I’ve got depression you’d slap him round the side of the head. It would be considered a weakness. It wasn’t talked about.”
Whilst times have changed, the tragic case of Gary Speed may have been the wake up call everybody needed with regards to treating such cases differently. Not just in English football either. German goalkeeper Robert Enke tragically committed suicide in 2009 having suffered for many years with clinical depression.
Enke’s biographer Ronald Reng wrote of the reaction his tragic death drew across the world, and how it sadly provided proof that depression can strike anyone at any time.
“Robert was Germany’s number one goalkeeper. The last bulwark, calm and cool in the tensest situations, able to control his stress and anxieties at the most extreme moments,” he said.
“What power must this illness have if it can draw a man like Robert Enke to the mistaken conclusion that death is the only solution?
“Beyond the headlines, deep down, there was real pain of profound paralysis. Robert’s death reminded most of us how little we understand about the illness that is depression.”
In the days after Gary Speed’s death, national newspapers reported that the PFA had produced a handbook to be distributed to all footballers on how to deal with stress and anxiety – both signs of depression – in order to prevent another tragic suicide.
The article also gave the accounts of several other footballers that had suffered in silence with the illness, such as Andy Cole, Clarke Carlisle and Neil Lennon, and their stories were included in the handbook.
The tragic deaths of Enke and Speed seemed to have forced action from sport’s governing bodies. It seems that more is being done in order to help players suffering from the condition, and with more information available following the publication of Robert Enke’s biography and the broadcasting of a BBC documentary on the subject, it appears the illness is being given serious coverage.
As more big names have come forward opening up about their struggles with depression, the media have taken a far less aggressive stance than they did with Stan Collymore’s in 1999.
Despite the tragic circumstances, it appears the deaths of Enke and Speed have proved a turning point in the way cases of depression in sport is handled.
More help is available nowadays to players suffering, with the option of seeing a sports psychologist privately if they are uncomfortable with revealing their condition to their teammates, managers the public and the press.
It is just such a terrible shame it took such a tragedy to make people sit up and finally take notice.
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