After the recent BBC documentary about the issue of depression & mental health in football, and the viewing of some of the ridiculous comments from some people in response to it, I felt it was necessary to write this to help end the stigma of mental issues in, not just football, but in life.
A report in 2001 claimed that “…approximately 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem.” (World Health Organisation, 2001). Think about that for a second. 450 million people worldwide, over 10 years ago, had a mental health problem. Is it so surprising then that some of those people will be playing on a football field? And would it be surprising that at least one or two will be in the public spotlight for us all to criticise?
The deaths of Gary Speed and German goalkeeper Robert Enke projected the heartbreaking world of suicide straight into the public realm. Thankfully, the majority of the responses to the suicides were ones of sympathy and grievance, but a small percentage of people felt it necessary to laugh, mock and criticise their actions. They condemned them as selfish for leaving their families alone. They lost respect for a person who supposedly took the ‘easy way out’. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something drastic to change the world, or to just change the world for a few individuals. Their deaths were of course devastating for those close to them, but thankfully their passings were not in vain.
In 2011, the PFA published The Footballer’s Handbook, which was handed to every Football League club in the country, which written to look at the problems and stresses a professional could come up against, how explores ways in which they can deal with them. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a start.
There can be many causes for unipolar depression. Stress, loss and chemical imbalances for example can all individually affect someone, or can be combined for a more serious case of depression. From a young age, the expectations put upon footballers place huge pressures on them to succeed. You have to train well, you have to meet targets, you can’t do this, you have to give this up, mess up and you’re out. You may think that because all these Premier League players are being paid generous salaries and live in beautiful houses with their beautiful WAGs that they cannot be depressed. There is no logical reason for them to be depressed. But people don’t understand what it’s like to feel depressed.
Yes, you may know what it’s like to have a bad day, or lose someone you love, or feel low, but depression is different. Some feel abject sadness, while others feel nothing, literally nothing. No matter how great or amazing their life might seem, the depression takes over, it takes control and it doesn’t matter if you’re on ridiculous wages, or playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world, nothing will make you feel good. Nothing will make you feel alive. That is why many turn to escapes such as alcohol, drugs and violence to feel alive..and sometimes, they turn to suicide to escape.
One of the problems with depression is the way it demands you to hide. I have suffered from depression myself and I quickly retracted from my friends and family, I was unable to speak to anyone about how I felt. If someone ever saw me looking sad, they would say “Cheer up!”, or “Pull yourself together!”, that never, NEVER helps. Depression to so many people today is still seen as a weakness. Something you can fix by someone dictating to you to ‘pull yourself together’. They’re wrong. It is so much harder to overcome than people realise. It can take months, years, even decades. People are never taught about mental illnesses, you normally have to know someone suffering one, or suffer from one yourself, to learn or understand what happens when a mental illness takes control.
Football for me has given me some unbelievable highs, but has also given me some incredible lows. Us as fans watch from the outside, if you feel pain when your team loses, imagine how it feels to the players who physically went through it for you. I can’t honestly imagine how some of the Arsenal players felt after the 2006 Champions League Final, I myself was in tears, I’m sure thousands of others joined me. But the players experienced it first hand. They put in their all for that night, the nerves and the disappointment they felt that night would have affected them more than I can contemplate.
It’s not just the fear players feel in the big games; the anxiety of making your debut, the abuse you get from the fans when you do something wrong, the worry that you might not have a back up plan if something in your career goes wrong, all these can affect a player. I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more footballers eventually reveal themselves to suffer from anxieties and depression in the future. Like with any stressful job, there will be casualties.
Everyone needs to know about mental illnesses. It needs to be taught. Rather like homosexuality in football, there is a stigma attached to revealing how you feel. The fear of ridicule and repercussions from opening up to your teammates can and will stop people from explaining to others of their situation.
I just hope it doesn’t take another drastic action to fully remove the stigma attached to mental health issues. It shouldn’t have to be that way.