Throughout the 2011/12 season there were many joyous moments for football fans around the country. Whether it be the success of Swansea in translating their fantastic brand of passing football from Championship to Premiership with consummate ease or the intriguing ongoing battle for supremacy in Manchester and for the Premier League title. Looking lower down the leagues we have seen Brian McDermott revitalising his Reading side to march through the Championship and make a return to the top flight. In League Two the appointment of Paulo Di Canio has proven a masterstroke for the Swindon Town board as he led his side to the top of League Two. However there have been so many sad moments and one key topic has been brought into the public domain whether it been in the Sporting arena or in society as a whole.
In September I’m sure you were as shocked as I was when former Bradford City and Middlesbrough star Dean Windass revealed his battle with depression and his shocking admission that he had tried to take his own life in the week before the article was published on two separate occasions. In the uber macho world of Sport it is slowly becoming more acceptable to admit that you suffer from what sadly is seen as a weakness but in reality is actually an illness. In modern society too often depression is the elephant in the room, everyone knows it exists but few want to acknowledge it. However in recent years some of our greatest sportsmen and women have suffered badly. One of the outstanding batsmen in English cricket Marcus Trescothick for one. On a tour of India with the England team Trescothick returned home suddenly citing a virus, hiding deep down what was actually depression. It was only months later when he returned from the unsuccessful defence of the Ashes in November of the same year that he admitted he was suffering from a stress related illness. The fact it was termed in that way is sad in itself. Again it is a clear indication he felt he would be seen as weak for admitting to depression.
One of the most famous cases in football is that of German international goalkeeper Robert Enke. Playing for numerous big clubs, representing his country and with a young family Enke seemed to have everything a man could want in life. Reading the book written by Ronald Reng on Enke’s illness is one of the most heartbreaking books I have ever read. On 10th November 2009 Enke was preparing to leave home, he kissed his wife and baby daughter and said he was off to training. He never returned, throwing himself in front of a train in what he thought was the only way out of the illness.
Just before Christmas we lost a Newcastle United legend in Gary Speed who committed suicide for no apparent reason although it seems routinely accepted that he too suffered from depression but as with Windass, Speed was also a bright cheerful character. The day before Speed’s suicide his one time Newcastle team-mate and friend Alan Shearer commented “ I was laughing and joking with him on Saturday [in a BBC TV studio], as we always do. There was no sign. The last thing I said was, ‘See you next weekend’. We were supposed to be going out, to a charity dinner we were attending together.” From a personal point of view the death of Speed affected me greatly.
As a Newcastle United fan of some twenty five years he was the first of my playing heroes to die and to do so in such tragic circumstances was hard to take. I can pay no higher compliment to Gary than to say the only event I can compare it to was the death of Sir Bobby Robson and that seemed to affect everyone in the footballing community. It’s often said that you should never meet your heroes and I met both Sir Bobby and Gary on separate occasions and both were all you could want from a professional footballer and a human being.
Back on to the main topic though, I will go back to the point that it’s still seen as a weakness and why has it taken the death of high-profile stars to make us realise that people need help. In today’s society we can talk about anything without fear of retribution. Whether it be sex, drugs, alcohol, there are no taboos. So why should something such as depression be seen that way. There is a stigma attached to depression and it needs be gotten rid of.
You see it would be easy for me to say Windass, Speed, Enke and Trescothick were victims of the pressures placed on top class sportsmen and women but the simple fact is there is no medical link between the pressure they were under and depression hitting them. That’s the most worrying thing about depression, it can hit anyone, anywhere, anytime. Read that sentence again and ask yourself is it really a weakness as you may have thought. We seem to forget that those performing at the highest whilst basking in the glory and financial rewards of their chosen sports, are whether we like it or not human beings. They have real emotions and live beyond their field of play where they suffer from real issues. It’s easy to accept that all of their problems can be dealt with purely because of the wealth they have but money can’t bring the solutions to a problem that is in your own head. Money doesn’t bring happiness all of the time it can only bring a whole new set of problems.
The list of top performing sportsmen and women who have suffered from depression goes on but the amount of them who have sought after help during their illness is somewhat lower. When you think of the stereotypical happy-go-lucky sportsman it’s probably quite easy to say that Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff would not be too far from the top of your list. Yet only this week Freddie has admitted that earlier in his career he was struck by depression. The enduring image of Flintoff was that of him batting and bowling England to the historic 2005 Ashes win and then coming out of the team hotel bleary eyed from celebrating a monumental victory. Yet just two years later Flintoff was breaking down in front of his own Dad, apologising for being a failure. The public perception of Freddie underneath it all did not match up to the real Andrew. Flintoff’s best mate in cricket is Ashington lad Steve Harmison who is another of the high-profile stars to have suffered and yet a quote from him shows how little is understood about depression even by those who have suffered from it. He said “That’s when it dawned on me – you’ve got a problem and you have got to sort it out. I was panicky, shaking, experiencing really bad heads. I thought, you are not well. There is something wrong and you have got to sort it out. But I still can’t get to the answer of why I felt like that.’”
Depression is not just feeling down or fed up, it’s not just feeling not yourself for a few days. It’s much deeper than that. It’s a severe illness with proper symptoms and treatment is easily accessible when you know where to go. It’s always played a part in my life through family members, close friends and me personally and it’s my own belief that it is not curable, however it is manageable if it’s treated properly and professionally. So next time you think a friend or family member is having “a bit of a down day” or is “feeling under the weather” maybe try to take time to chat to them because you could be the light that leads them out of the darkness.