For a moment – just a moment, I promise – please stop what you are doing. Take yourself back to this morning when you woke up. The lights are off and you are in complete darkness, you open your eyes and can see nothing but darkness. There is a light switch somewhere but you can’t find it, the darkness envelopes you. That, in essence for me is the best feasible description of depression. There are days when you find that light switch and the world seems a far brighter place, however there are days when the darkness never lifts and lethargy and uncertainty cloud your every thought and action.
Now this time I want you to imagine you are a multi-millionaire Premier League footballer, perhaps you even play for your country. You’re about to wake up in a luxurious mansion, probably with a remarkably beautiful partner beside you. Your indoor pool has been heated up, your overpriced sports car has been cleaned and you have a game of golf planned for the afternoon, once training is finished. You open your eyes but the darkness is there. The light switch is nowhere to be found, darkness overcomes you. Depression prevails for the day but maybe tomorrow the switch will be found and things will be a little better. The point of that second paragraph is to hammer home the point that no matter what your personal circumstances are, depression and mental health issues can hit you and when they do, they hit hard. Whether you are a wealthy footballer adored by millions or an aspiring journalist who is happy to be loved by friends and family, depression takes no account of circumstance, it takes who and what it wants.
For example, I have good days and bad, just the same as anyone. Although there was one Sunday three years ago that scared me and made me realise that all was not as it should be. I was staying at my partner’s house on the Saturday night after returning home from a Blyth Spartans game, and one that we had won. My other club had also won that day and in all honesty, it is a rarity that both of my teams should win on the same day. My partner was away for the weekend visiting friends so I watched Match of the Day, had something to eat and headed to bed at around midnight.
I woke up on the Sunday morning at the quite frankly ridiculous time of 6am – admittedly not ridiculous for some but as someone who enjoys lying in until long after that, it was a very early morning. As soon as I opened my eyes darkness hit me, I knew it was something different and it was not good. I was scared to move, I was scared to get out of bed and I felt paralysed by the mood that I knew had hit me. I lay there for hours, not sleeping, just lying there, scared and motionless. That was the day I realised I had to talk to someone.
Sadly, even these days where sex, drugs and alcohol are spoken about freely in the public domain, mental health issues and in particular depression remain a taboo, the elephant in the room. We know it exists, we know it is there, but to talk about it provokes a reaction that hits every part of the spectrum. From pity to disdain, from sorrow to understanding, there can’t be many topics that divide opinion more than mental health. However, I still maintain that the majority of people see depression as a weakness in a human being, not the horrible, soul crushing illness that it is.
Clarke Carlisle is the latest footballer to come under the spotlight after his admission that he attempted to commit suicide before Christmas by throwing himself under a lorry. There are many positive and negative aspects to social media platforms such as Twitter and I’d like to think positively – for once! – that it gives someone a broad scale of the public reaction to a breaking news story. I have seen many differing opinions and whilst I agree with many, there are some that, as someone who has been around depression for most of my life, I simply can’t agree with.
I have seen Clarke Carlisle labelled as selfish for not thinking of his family or the lorry driver. My riposte would be that if someone is willing to throw themselves in front of a lorry, their depression is severe and as a result, their mental state is horribly clouded. I don’t doubt for a moment that in the cold light of day he doesn’t think about what happened and wonder how his wife and children would have felt. However at that point in time, on that particular day, when circumstances put him in that mood where it was the only way out, depression sent him into a spiral whereby reality and his thought process were severely distorted by the disease.
There have been many high-profile cases in football of players suffering with mental health issues, two of which sadly led the affected to commit suicide. As a North East lad, the one that affected me more was Gary Speed – a player who I had admired for a long time and in his time at Newcastle United, became one of the most respected players I had seen in a black and white shirt in almost twenty-five years watching football.
There was so much to admire about him. He was a wonderfully committed footballer with talent in abundance, universally admired by those in the game for his style and achievements. He seemed to have it all on and off the pitch with a beautiful wife and two sons who adored him. Speed was beginning to carve out a promising coaching career and one that had led him to gain international recognition as manager of the Welsh national team – quite an honour for a man who had captained his country on a number of occasions.
This should silence any doubters that depression is an illness and not a weakness. The man had mental strength and displayed it throughout his career in several difficult periods. When depression took hold, it forced him to disregard everything that was positive in his life and more chillingly, he was able to hide it from those closest to him – including former team-mate Alan Shearer, who admitted that he hadn’t seen anything different in Speed as they appeared on Football Focus just twenty-four hours before Gary took his own life.
Another example is former Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke, who I sincerely hope you will take the time to read up on – I can highly recommend Ronald Reng’s book “A life too short”. Enke was a very successful goalkeeper and played for several big clubs, including the biggest club in the world, Barcelona. He had also represented his country on eight occasions and was part of the squad who finished runners-up at Euro 2008. However just over a year after that tournament Enke committed suicide by stepping in front of an express train.
It was only after his death that the truth came out. Enke had suffered from depression throughout his career and had been given treatment by a psychiatrist but after the death of his young daughter, it had returned and ultimately led to his suicide. Enke took his depression and mental illness to his grave and never felt that he could speak openly about it.
How sad is it that revered figures such as Speed and Enke felt they couldn’t speak up and seek support? To be brutally honest, it’s no more than if you or I felt we couldn’t speak up and admit we needed support because of depression. The only way you can help someone affected to cope with the disease is by being there to support and talk to them. I firmly believe that there is no cure, nor will there ever be – it’s simply a case of coping with and managing depression.
So instead of judging people for being weak or selfish, treating them as outcasts and casting them aside, we need to be there to support them. Maybe then, when they open their eyes each day, the light switch will become a little easier to find and the world will be a far easier place to live in.
If you’d like to get some advice or support for any mental health issues, please visit http://www.mind.org.uk/
If you feel you’re in crisis and need to talk to someone asap, please call Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 24/7, 365 days per week.