It would be serendipity if the subject matter wasn’t so moving, but yesterday afternoon Ronald Reng won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011 for his biography of Robert Enke, A Life Too Short. As the cyclist David Millar tweeted, “Worthy winner: pertinent subject.” I think that says it all. I’m now even more eager to read it.
This time two years ago I was sat at home, signed off work with “moderate” depression feeling unable to do very much at all. One November morning I remember waking up to the radio and the news that the German international goalkeeper Robert Enke had died having stood in front of a train. Whilst other world news was passing me by, this story really struck home. Here was someone at the peak of their career, comfortably well off and seemingly not wanting for anything. The media asked the question: why would he do something seemingly so silly, so stupid?
Yesterday, the news emerged that Wales football manager Gary Speed had died. He was found at home and had apparently hung himself. Again, the media seemed puzzled by events. Speed had finished a celebrated playing career and in his short tenure as Welsh manager seemingly turned around the fortunes of the team. He was married, with 2 sons and lived in a large country house. Many reports refered to his appearance on Saturday’s Football Focus programme and seeming to be in good spirits. Robbie Savage referred to Speed’s appearance at Strictly Come Dancing and his happiness at being there. Again the questions came about why a person with so much took the decision to end it all.
It would be wrong cast further speculation on yesterday’s news. However, Enke’s story is very insightful. Despite the outward appearance of success and its trappings, Enke was suffering his own inner turmoil. He had suffered from depression for some time. As a professional footballer he had to deal with taunts from fans, both the opposition and his own – a criticism which we expect “professionals” to handle. Three years prior to his death, Enke and his wife had to deal with the death of their daughter from a congenital heart defect – perhaps fuelling feels of failure on his part? Enke didn’t talk about his mental health. He feared that being honest would lead to his adopted daughter being taken away. For a man who to the onlooker had everything, fearing the loss of the things that mattered most, the non-material parts of life, was the final straw. In the weeks leading up to his suicide he had kept his real feelings hidden so he could go through with the plans. He seemed to wear a mask up until the end, the modern way we are expected to deal with our problems.
The masks we wear are the modern disease: outwardly successful and secure but inwardly insecure and vulnerable. In the machismo world of football the pressure not to reveal these feelings is immense and it takes a tragic event like Enke’s for the walls to be lowered but still they remain. When the media still wonders why people who seemingly have everything do “stupid” and “silly” things in taking or attempting to take their own lives its is clear that the walls remain. Once again, sport is merely a lens for wider society. As the incidence of depression and mental health stresses increase through the pressures of life today, so it is becoming the “modern” disease and a symbol of our “progress”. Only progress would mean losing the stiff upper lip. It really is time for change before this silent killer does more damage.