On Depression In Football And Why Mental Illness Isn’t ‘Occupation Specific’

Chris Wright

28th, November 2011

42 Comments

By Chris Wright

There was a point in my life, several years ago now thankfully, when I couldn’t escape the recurring thought that I just didn’t want to exist any more. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours a week and I was firmly entrenched in the bowels of a nihilistic substance abuse problem, ‘trench’ being the poignant syllable. I couldn’t see over the top.

I’d like to make it clear that I wasn’t suicidal and gave absolutely no thought to taking my own life at any point, but my attitude to existence became very laissez-faire. Holed up in bed behind permanently drawn curtains, mourning a loss of innocence with whiskey on my cornflakes, enough ‘paraphernalia’ to sedate a Brontosaurus and bowel movements like thin gruel.

The strange thing was, barring certain unavoidable tell-tale physical give-aways, it wasn’t immediately obvious to anyone on the outside looking in. I still managed to touch base with friends regularly and even turn out for football matches once or twice a week without letting on. It was, for want of a less hackneyed cliché, a very private hell. One that I refused to fully acknowledge for a long, long time.

I didn’t consider myself mentally ill or unstable in any way, and when I look back on that period in my life now I still don’t – despite some very erratic behaviour and how it may look once the ins and outs are committed to paper.

I was only depressed in so far as a fair few of my ‘symptoms’ could be checked off on an NHS Direct pamphlet, but I wasn’t some howling ECT candidate. It’s not like the movies. There’s no instant onset of wild unkempt hair, vomit-stained jogging bottoms, permanent five-day stubble and bulging purple bags under the eyes to hammer home the fact. I actually managed to shower and shave on a semi-regular basis. More regularly, in fact, than I’ve managed since I started freelancing from home a couple of years ago!

You may be wondering what my mawkish memoirs have to do with football, so here comes the tenuous tie-in. We’ve seen several recent counts of suicide and attempted suicide by figures associated with the game; Robert Enke, Babak Rafati, Gary Speed – each one blamed almost instantaneously, whether rightly or wrongly, on a case of deep-rooted depression that has been allowed to simmer and spore due to the footballing sphere’s inherent lack of sympathy and compassion toward such illnesses.

In stark contrast, if the continuing outpouring of grief and condolences following Gary Speed’s awful, untimely death yesterday is anything to go by, it’s surely a mark of the support and love he could and – you’d hope – would have received had he confided in his teammates, associates and many friends within the game. People – supposedly cold, unfeeling, overtly macho footballers, loved the man, that much is now obvious. Robbie Savage cried on national television for Christ’s sake.

Yes, football is a boy’s club – a creche at times – but we’re talking about human beings here, not heartless monsters. The image of players slapping each other’s backsides and fermenting and solidifying their gang mentality by picking out and preying on the runt’s mental weaknesses is outdated if it were ever the norm at all – at least in my (admittedly limited) experience.

To label such terrible, tragic incidents as “football’s fault” when a footballer past or present is involved is knee-jerk and sorely wide of the mark. Depression isn’t occupation specific, it’s insular, personal and largely private. The point being that, until a move is made on the sufferer’s part to address the situation, many times such afflictions can go completely undetected until, sadly, it’s far too late. You can only put a ‘brave face’ on something that is crippling you from the inside out for so long.

The supposed lack of support from ‘the dressing room’ is theoretically paralleled in other walks of life where Alpha male bullshit is king. Now is as good-a-time as any to reinforce the point that we should stop treating football as a separate entity when it comes to mental health, because illness itself doesn’t recognise such facile distinctions.

I guarantee that it’ll be a more impressive show of innate strength, especially in the current climate, to go public with your personal tempest than it would to leave friction burns across some poor bugger’s arse cheeks with the flick of a wet towel. I guarantee it.

If you are suffering in silence you must know that, while it requires an immense amount of personal bravery to make the first step, there are remote, unbiased, warm, sympathetic, non-judgemental and experienced people you can talk to – SamiratansMindSANE and Rethink to name but four.

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42 Comments

  1. Liam says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us. Glad your ok. Pies is in my Top 10 mate, keep it up ;)

  2. Davy says:

    Brilliant article and very well written and brave Chris. My Dad is suffering with deptression now and is in hospital so i can sympathise with this….Its a horrible thing to suffer from

  3. kct says:

    @ chris, thanks for sharing this. I’ve also had points where I was feeling exactly like you feel; I had an existential crisis, which left me with too many questions and completely numb to life. What helped for me was not hiding behind a macho mask, and talking about it with friends and family. The more I talked about it, the more I realised I was far from alone with feelings like this. What also helped for me was confronting, and even being curious, about the way I felt. People straight away slap a term like depression onto people when they feel down, however I believe it could also just be an awaking to living life in a different way. I realised that we don’t need answers to every question, and that real contentment lies in acceptance. Even though I’m not a particularly religious person this quote really hit home for me:
    “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

    I think real wisdom lies in accepting you feel crap from time to time and not kicking yourself for feeling that way. Everything in life has ups and downs, the economy, man-united and even us. Now when I have periods when i feel slightly under the weather, I acknowledge my feelings and talk about them. I don’t try and change them. I know it’s part of life and, to a certain extent, I even value feeling slightly down from time to time; it makes me feel vulnerable and human.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks chaps. I’m fine now, just a little wizened beyond my relatively tender years. These are ghosts I put to rest a long time ago.

  4. Davy says:

    @KCt….Brilliant way of looking at things mate, that’s actually made me feel better. I think we all suffer at some point or another with what could be labelled as “depression”…

  5. Archbishop Betty Snagcock says:

    great article, thanks for sharing Chris.

    Whilst I do feel that suicide is a selfish and cowardly act, especially when there are others around you that care so much, I cannot possibly even begin to understand what it feels like to be at the point where you just see no hope.

    “I was only depressed in so far as a fair few of my ‘symptoms’ could be checked off on an NHS Direct pamphlet, but I wasn’t some howling ECT candidate” – I think that raises a really important thing with depression (something nigh-on impossible to diagnose) that many are scared of just being told that their case is not that bad, that others have it worse and a they are making a big fuss over nothing.

    I hate to speculate but maybe that’s why Speed did it, maybe he was just too used to being the one people looked up to, to then go and ask for help. Again, just speculation and I really hope his family comes through this wretched time.

    And thanks again for sharing chris, takes a lot to tell the internet shit like this.

    and @kct: beautifully said…but man utd?????

  6. Himmot says:

    Another one:(

    “An assistant referee tried to commit suicide in the dressing room less than an hour before a match in Belgium on Saturday.
    The official, Chris Schelstraete, is recovering in hospital after being found with his wrists slashed ahead of a second division match between Tubize and FC Brussels.”

  7. MJ says:

    great article chris! just love all of your stuff, keep it up! or, in my first language: schö gset!

  8. Matt Visser says:

    Brilliant.

  9. Stewart says:

    All I’d add is this. The stats show that after such an event there are often ‘copycat’ suicides and young men are particularly vulnerable to this ‘social virus’. The dead hero is seen as a ‘permission giver’. If you’re thinking like that you are suffering from warped thinking and you need professional help – so get on those links or see your GP.

  10. David Allison says:

    Great article on the subject, Chris, and some excellent comments, too. KCT’s quote is definitely one to keep at the forefront of conciousness. I’ve just been pointed in the direction of the below article, which is written by a secret footballer. Whilst there are points that reflect the opinion shown in Chris’ article, the writer suggests that this problem is potentially more potent in the footballing world, with high pressure to perform on a massive stage. Also, in somewhat bizarre timing, this article was published on Friday, two days before Gary’s death.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2011/nov/25/the-secret-footballer?newsfeed=true

  11. chimpo says:

    as someone who has suffered a severe breakdown in the past i had to hide it from friends and family as best as i could because of the taboo it still is.

    if someone breaks their leg they can get a cast and people’s pity. if people have mental illnesses they become outcasts

    RIP Gary

  12. Mr. Chopper says:

    It’s been a hot topic this week, what with Collymore and Rafati. Maybe we’ll never know exactly what went on with Gary, but if any good can come from his untimely death then hopefully it’ll be enough to prevent others from feeling so helpless they feel they have to take their own lives.

  13. Archbishop Betty Snagcock says:

    @Stewart: agreed, lets hope people don’t go down this route. remember all the bridgend suicides
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/7208152.stm

  14. kct says:

    @ Davy…. Cheers mate. I’ve always been quite level headed but I started feeling a lot more at ease after reading about mindfulness. Even though i didn’t agree with everything, there were some interesting new ideas. You should give it a go.

  15. Ruben says:

    Great work, Chris. Beautiful article. This is why Pies is such an amazing site.

  16. mizman says:

    great article chris. my mum has just started to suffer from depression and i will try and use the article and resulting comments to help her through her situation. From what i can gather so far, the most important thing is to try and make people suffering from depression not feel isolated or “wrong” for feeling the way they do. thanks :)

  17. Mr. Sparkle says:

    Good on you Chris, people don’t have to suffer in silence.

  18. Dave says:

    Chris, please don’t assume that Gary’s death was due to deep-rooted depression. My son had a young family and a life that was perfect, except for temporary work-based anxiety. He was prescribed anti-depressants. and within 5 days he killed himself, totally out of the blue. The coroner’s verdict was not suicide. Instead it was recorded as a narrative verdict, with the antidepressant cited as a cause. Tragically, this is not an uncommon event.

  19. eve says:

    On a related note, the winner of this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award was anounced today. It’s Ronald Reng’s “A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke”.

  20. __wowza says:

    fantastic article, it takes a lot to share that part of your life with us and it’s much appreciated. people who freely hurl abuse at players can often forget that they’re real, living, breathing people with their own lives, family and issues.

    i’m an actor, there’s no age limit for my profession, but for many athletes out there they reach a certain age where the game suddenly stops. imagine doing something and loving it for 20+ years of your life only to find out that you’ve grown beyond the ability to compete anymore. must be a hard thing to come to grips with. the amount of pressure on them to put on a brave public face is immense.

  21. Jimbo says:

    Thanks for sharing this, mate. Depression is still the pink elephant in the room and especially within groups of lads it’s difficult to accept that you have a problem and ask for help. It took one of my good mates six years to finally open up to us about it and altough it was hard for him i think talking about it helps. We don’t treat him as an invalid and all we wanna do is help the guy get to a good place.
    Depression is still a very grey area in the UK and I do think we need to be helped to understand it more.

  22. Mark Stevens says:

    Chris,

    I have a similar experience, thank you for sharing.

    I had a few thoughts on the ‘media’ reaction, which I blogged here:

    This Week’s Worst Thing In Football 11/28: Respect for Humanity, Where Are You?

    http://wp.me/p1Nbcp-oU

    Mark, thetruefootball.com

  23. Ryan says:

    Thanks Chris

  24. Chris says:

    Thank you for all the kind responses guys. Much appreciated. If articles like this are the reason you enjoy Pies, then it’s comments like these that are the reason I love it.

    If that makes any sense at all?

  25. Krsta says:

    Good one Chris, you are a leg!

    I think anyone can relate to that, been suffering myself a couple of monts ago … Nice to know we are not alone when it comes to these kinds of things. And yes – articles like these (and so much more) are the reason we enjoy Pies, because everything about you guys is genuine: humour, class, irony, and everything else … Virtues that are sadly disappearing in our everyday lives. Thanks again and take care!

  26. Freddy says:

    An absolutely fantastic and beautifully written article Chris, glad to hear that you’re doing so well now after what must have been a horrible time. Pies is one of the best sites on the web, both for laughs and articles such as this one. I to a lesser extent than some have also suffered from depression and if there is one thing I would stress above all it is to go and see someone, anyone, to tell all and get support. The benefits are immeasurable.

  27. mr. moon says:

    A beautifully written article Chris. Hope you are well sir.

  28. Ryan says:

    Whilst I do feel that suicide is a selfish and cowardly act, especially when there are others around you that care so much, I cannot possibly even begin to understand what it feels like to be at the point where you just see no hope.

    Well then you really are in no position to judge are you ?

    Nobody is able to feel the mental pain someone else does, or relate to it. If anything it’s a self-less act.

  29. Ryan says:

    The coroner’s verdict was not suicide. Instead it was recorded as a narrative verdict, with the antidepressant cited as a cause. Tragically, this is not an uncommon event.

    Even though the killed himself ?

    Are you a Doctor ? A psychiatrist ? Then shut your gob and stop talking about things you don’t understand.

  30. Papi says:

    One of my favorite sites and writers, thank you for sharing, Chris. Eres de muchos cojones, my friend.

  31. fouldsy says:

    Chris, ive loved all of your work. even the ones everyone kicked off about. i can relate to substance abuse, i used to smoke weed every day of my life, but since ive quit i seem to have taken a likening to cocaine, and ive always drank far too much than i should of! maybe i need to rethink my life… it gets me down, yeah, but its down to earth people like yourself that take me back up. keep doing what youre doing! keep bringing me the football news!

  32. fouldsy says:

    i didnt mean to finish there. you made something of your life, even after the abuse. you made something out of your life with something you love! and, quite frankly, you are an inspiration to me. but, i digress. KEEP BRINGING ME THE FOOTBALL NEWS!

  33. dld says:

    @Ryan –

    While Dave may not be a doctor or psychiatrist, he IS the grieving father of a son who died and he is just reporting what the coroner’s verdict was. He is also correct. There has been much written about certain anti-depressants having adverse effects on patients. Here in the US, the FDA puts warnings on some anti-depressants: “The FDA has warned that children and adults taking antidepressants can become suicidal in the first weeks of therapy and that physicians should watch patients closely when first giving the drugs or changing dosages. The FDA is asking drug manufacturers to place explicit warnings about the drugs’ side effects, including the risk of suicide, on their labels.”

    Most folks who have had some experience with trying anti-depressants, myself included, have reported at the very least feeling off, numb or weird. In others, these feelings can be much more pronounced. A close friend of mine is a therapist specializing in psychopharmacology and we have discussed this issue many times. It can take a long time to get the correct dosage of drugs for an individual.

    I felt your reply to Dave was rude, thoughtless and unnecessary. Chris shared a brave and personal account here. The comments have been equally thoughtful. Your two comments are accusatory and negative. You just came round and started lashing out at people. While you have a right to your opinion, perhaps you could express it with a bit more civility like everyone else here has?

  34. okido says:

    great man he will live on forever as that..shay given could have refused to play that match but did so with respect he cried through it in respect to gary…..just goes to show you dont know whats going on in peoples heads really….hope your fine now chris great article!!!

  35. Dave says:

    Perhaps this section of an inquest report will educate Ryan. Mr Ian Smith, incidentally, is the Cumbria coroner.
    “Mr Smith told the inquest he knew of several other suspected suicides involving the same group of antidepressants, known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
    He said: “I have to say this is probably the fifth, if not sixth inquest I’ve heard within a period of three years when somebody either just going on to Citalopram or Seroxat, or coming off it, have killed themselves one way or another, totally out of the blue, totally without expectation, without a history of suicidal thoughts in the past.”
    Mr Smith returned a narrative verdict.

  36. Ubietz888 says:

    Simply a brilliant article. To all those suffering with depression you aren’t alone.

  37. sloth says:

    Great article Chris.

    This summer, the NHL (ice hockey) lost three active players to their own separate struggles with depression and substance abuse. The world can a tough place, and professional sports are no exception.

    Rest in peace Gary Speed, Robert Enke, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, and anyone to ever lose a battle with mental illness or depression.

    May the world learn from its losses.

  38. Madjair says:

    I have to join the line of fans, once again. Very good piece.

  39. WildScotsman6 says:

    Well in Chris, I see lots of love from other pies!
    “because illness itself doesn’t recognise such facile distinctions.” – brilliant line!

  40. Mark Stevens says:

    Chris,

    Your article inspired me to share my own experience. I hope you don’t mind I linked back to here.

    Gary Speed: Thoughts on Depression, Suicide and Football – http://wp.me/p1Nbcp-p3

  41. Ron says:

    Nice one, Chris!

    Glad you’ve come through to see better days.

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