Death of a Footballer & The Modern Disease

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.

Even lions need courage

All the lion needed was courage, but that wasn't so easy to find without the right help.

I opened the sports section of yesterday’s paper and in amongst the postmortems of England’s failed World Cup bid and the jubilation over the England cricket team’s successes down under was this advert for Time to Change featuring former England batsman Marcus Trescothick. It’s interesting that it is in the Sports section and in some ways follows on from last weeks post about Bradley Wiggins. Firstly, Trescothick received a lot of flak for leaving the last Ashes Tour down-under after he came home early as a result of what was then described as “home sickness”. To appear amongst the very same sports pages obviously was meant to provoke a reaction amongst readers. And so secondly, who are the main readers of sports pages? Men. And who are least likely to admit to suffering from depression, anxiety and stress? Men! I admire the way that Trescothick has not only acknowledged and started to deal with his problems but has fronted this campaign.  We admire our sportsmen and women when they are winning but love to bash them when they are down, never accepting the excuses and dismissing as unacceptable weakness the underlying reasons.  I’ve been as guilty as the next fan but I’ve started to rethink this.  It takes courage to make a stand, be that to yourself and to the outside world.  Each of us can play our own part in beating the stigma of mental health issues: those of us who suffer can take the courage to admit our problems – life will only get better when you do; to those on the outside, look at how you can support family, friends and colleagues best in feeling less “odd” (even if its just an ear to bend and shoulder to cry on, that often can be the biggest help).  Out of it all we can begin to share our experiences,  in this way we can break down the myths, give others the inforamtion they need to take their own steps and so begin to fight the prejudice. I hope I’ve managed to do my bit through this blog and would encourage others to do their own thing.

And if you want further information about the campaign go to www.time-to-change.org.uk and make your own pledge. This is something I have become passionate about changing as a result of my own experience. And in the words of the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, courage can make slaves into kings. Let’s all be lions this winter and lay these bigger ashes to rest!