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Football’s last taboos: How the football family can help smash the stigma of Mental health

The global football community can smash this stigma for good but only if we persevere, educate ourselves and unite. 

Wales v England - EURO 2012 Qualifier Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

I remember it very clearly. The 27th of November, 2011. A beautiful autumnal day, but nonetheless unremarkable. As the tired morning yawned its way into the pleasant freshness of early afternoon, the initial frost was a distant memory and the sun was panting furiously, working hard to plunge a hearty slice of warmth through the tough skin of near winter. Gladly, I bumped into a friend of mine while walking in Durham with my old Labrador, but before we exchanged our usual pleasantries, I could see a natural reticence, a surprising appearance of sadness on his otherwise jolly face. Off guard, I tried to guess what the problem may be so I could arm myself with an appropriate response. A sick child perhaps? An argument with his wife? Maybe an unexpected migraine? He looked at me in seriousness, but I felt prepared for whatever gripe he would throw my way.

‘Have you heard about Gary Speed mate?’ he asked.

I had not expected this random question at all, but more importantly nor had I heard about Gary Speed. Had he resigned as Wales manager? Perhaps he’d been exposed as a serial cheat in a sleazy Sunday morning newspaper?

No.’ I replied. ‘What’s happened?’ I asked tentatively.

‘The poor fella’s committed suicide. In his garage at home.’

Wales Press Conference Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

I can’t remember the conversation after that point but the day did not melt into its usual normalities - far from it. The stunning news was a raw, undiluted tragedy. It knocked me into a mini tail spin. I don’t know Gary Speed, I’ve never met him. I thought he seemed like a very decent man, a good manager, an excellent pundit - not bad for an ex-mag - but that’s as far as my radar had picked him up.

In the coming weeks and months the country kept waiting for the reason. Surely the slithery tabloids would unearth a bankruptcy or expose an affair, perhaps unearth a secret love child. But no. Nothing. The man was as honourable, honest and popular as every colleague and friend had described him. As great a father, husband and son as his family proclaimed. No-one had seen it coming, no one had any answers. Whatever demons he fought against, the poor soul fought them alone and perhaps to protect those around him, he kept it that way. Thus compounding the tragic nature of these awful events.

Five years after the initial devastating incident, Gary’s father gave a loving tribute to his son, where the sadness of the loss is weighed down even further by the anchor of unanswered questions.

I talk about what Gary’s done and it’s brilliant. The fans are fantastic – Leeds, Newcastle and Everton. He was so well liked, on top of the world, going for the World Cup with Wales. The worst thing about it is we still don’t know why.

The lack of answers is one of the on-going mountains to climb for those suffering from mental illnesses or related mental health challenges. On many occasions the sufferers themselves don’t know the answers, so speaking up about them is not only mortifyingly embarrassing, but also a sign of our weakness or ignorance.

This may seem like a strange topic to cover for what is usually a place for football opinion articles. In truth, I wasn’t certain if I should even write about it or whether or not Mental Health within football was appropriate ground to cover. I asked one of the Editor’s in Chief at Roker Report if it was a topic we should highlight and he was unequivocal in his response.

YES! Please do. This is a subject close to many people’s hearts and certainly one worth talking about.

It was a gracious response that made me question my hesitancy. My lack of confidence in even asking the question is a mild metaphor for the complexity of mental illness and the silence that many suffer in. I felt ashamed to even ask whether or not we should cover the subject so imagine the shame felt by millions of sufferers who do not dare mention its name? Is it any wonder our friends or family can’t look us in the eye or why we just can’t express ourselves or seek the help we need?

In the spirit of honesty and to keep the integrity of the piece pivotal to its subject matter, I will take a step forward and admit to my own private scrapes with this powerful and manipulative adversary. The details are immaterial to this article - suffice as to say my interest in the subject is one born of personal experiences. But I am certain that in one way or another we will all have been touched either directly or indirectly by this challenging obstacle which not only destroys individuals, but families too. Football for all of its wonder, profile and majesty is not immune to mental illness, so why not discuss it?

Hanover 96 v 1.FC Cologne Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

When Robert Enke, the former Bayern Munich goalkeeper and German international, took his own life in 2009 at age 32, the horrific tragedy was somewhat of a catalyst in European football to recognise the perilous harm a struggle with mental illness can bring. It pushed the battle of improving mental well-being more significantly away from the image of sterile waiting rooms and intrusive psychologist’s asking questions about how often you were held as a child. It opened the door to much more conversation, analysis and empathy. Enke didn’t fit the woeful, inadequate and in many cases hurtful stereotypes of lower class, uneducated, unfulfilled and unsuccessful males who slunk around dark corners unable to communicate with the rest of mankind. This is was a charismatic, giant of a man. Hugely successful in his profession, very wealthy, he’d played for big European clubs as well as his international team. Desperately he left behind a lovely young family. If his painful passing taught us anything, it’s that mental illness, like any illness is not a respecter of persons. It is oblivious to wealth and status, its colour blind and unprejudiced. Enke, his wife claimed had never recovered from the death of their young daughter and as many of us will know, these premature calamities can strike anyone at any time and on this occasion the man it struck was a professional goalkeeper. It could be a postman today, a dinner lady tomorrow.

And so this list goes on. Paul Gascoigne, Stan Collymore, Rio Ferdiinand, and recently Aaron Lennon are the high profile cases. But as former PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle explained:

This only seems to come to the fore when there is a Paul Gascoigne or a Kenny Sansom. It's good to highlight their case, of course but my concern is for the 17-year-old boy at Aldershot or Barnet or Northampton who hasn't got the support network or the celebrity friends. That's where we need to focus.

S.S. Lazio v Tottenham Hotspur FC - UEFA Europa League Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

We know this is real right? If not - we should. This form of illness can be deadly and I do not say that lightly. Suicide is the biggest killer of young people in this country - by far. Particularly young men under the age of 35 - 5000 of which commit suicide every year. BUT, eyes are opening and services that support those chained in the shackles of a mental illness are beginning to flourish and that must be welcomed - in truth - shouted from the rooftops. As citizens of football we must believe we can change lives for the better. Together.

For example, the PFA have been running an Emotional Welfare department since 2012.

Michael Bennett, the PFA’s head of welfare, said:

Last year (2016) we had 160 professionals requesting emotional support….and that is growing year on year. Key for me is making our members aware of what is in place and the more we raise awareness, the more people will use the service. The PFA provides a variety of help and advice options for its members, including a 24-hour phone-line and access to a psychiatrist, and employs more than 100 counselors nationwide.

He also noted:

For people like Clarke Carlisle, Rio Ferdinand – even Prince Harry – to talk about their experience brings the taboo down and you become more comfortable being able to talk about it. We are trying to change that mindset of silence.

As well as the names mentioned above there is an almost infinite list of footballers and sports people who have suffered from or do suffer from a mental health disorder. From Dame Kelly Holmes, to Freddie Flintoff, from Frank Bruno to Ricky Hatton and there are many in between. This is not an illness that just favours the unfit or the anonymous.

Newcastle United v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

But I believe we can take inspiration from our sports people and mobilise their courage and their honesty and use them as a tour de force of support and assistance. We can follow heroes as become forces of good ourselves, to lead the way in this fight against what can be a debilitating millstone around our psychological necks. It’s also moving to know that we live in more enlightened times and that football as an entity is making great changes to educate and eradicate this one if its last great taboos. Despite this the time for enlightenment must still beam brighter for many still scoff and sneer. If he was assessing the needs of those in turmoil, one perma-tanned, orange President with a scandalous comb over may say: “Fake illness folks, fake illness.” Because unlike physical illness, we can’t see this, until perhaps it’s too late.

No-one can doubt that footballers, in many of which we pin our hopes and dreams should get the help they desperately need. The FA, The PFA and UEFA all offer a myriad of help lines and professional services. But what of the other key stake holders of our beautiful game? Us. The fans. The life blood. This is hugely important for us too right? Massive in fact.

Mental Health charity MIND estimate that 1 in every 4 people suffer from a mental illness or have experienced the trauma of such suffering. 1 in 4! To put that into context, our average Premier League attendance was 42,000 and when you do the math the outcome is startling. It equates to 10,500 people who attended those games are or have been victims of a mental health problem. 10,500! 1 person in every 4th seat. We could practically reach out and touch them. We see them every week, we talk to them, laugh with them and in the case of Sunderland supporters - more often than not we will cry with them. It could be anyone including someone you love and the chances are they a doing it alone which sadly is the nature of such monstrous challenges.

West Bromwich Albion v Queens Park Rangers - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Former Premier League star Clarke Carlisle himself suffered from depression and attempted suicide. He explained:

These illnesses are so dangerous because they force you to disengage even when you’re aware of the mechanisms available to support you. You isolate, you hide and introvert yourself which is the opposite of what you need to do.

But do clubs and football authorities have a responsibility for all of football’s stake holders, both players and supporters? Do we fans, who could be only three seats away from someone burdened with this torture, have a responsibility for others with whom every week we bare our footballing souls? I believe the answer is yes on both fronts.

Clubs up and down the country are beginning to take notice and stride into action. Our club Sunderland for example has done some amazing work and should be applauded. The clubs community arm, the Foundation of Light are vocal supporters of World Mental Health day and as such are reaching out into the community, (the very people who hold the foundations of this club on their shoulders) to run programs and educational workshops, breaking down barriers and smashing the stigmas that have long held good work like this back.

They run Exercise Therapy groups for those with emotional and anxiety challenges to promote positive health and lifestyle changes. The Foundation maintains and runs the Back in the Game Veterans' Employability course, which provides opportunities for those leaving the armed forces through activities that improve their physical wellbeing and mental health with a goal to reduce social isolation.

Last year, the programme supported 21 veterans through sports and training opportunities focussing on those with various emotional issues including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

And what of the Foundation of Light's Family Learning Healthy Minds course that brings families together to gain awareness of mental health and help improve both adults and children’s emotional welfare. Incredible and hugely significant steps forward.

Yet even with such compassionate and determined work is there is still much to do for all the stake holders in football. Supporting those in our lives with mental health challenges is a wheel that will keep turning and the road is unenviably long. Sadly some may not make it, but examples like this from Sunderland AFC and similar stories from responsible clubs and organisations like the FA and PFA are exactly the places we need to start. However I must note that these efforts should be the genesis of change and not the sole solution. But as football clubs accept and understand the needs of their patrons and communities and put the weight of their influence and infrastructure behind them, there is no limit to the changes they can make and lives they can save.

And what about us? The everyday Joe? Well, on average every 4th seat at the Stadium of Light has someone sitting in it who may be suffering in silence. Ignorance of mental health issues is no longer an excuse, and we must get educated on the subject and change the corny phrase ‘the family of football,from a banal marketing tag line into an organic and tangible force for good that actually means something to individuals who need a familial arm around them. The global football community can smash this stigma for good but only if we persevere, educate ourselves and unite.

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