Depression and Football
Depression amongst sportsmen has been a topic of some debate recently. The case of the England cricketer Michael Yardy who had to return home from the Cricket World Cup because of his depression brought the issue to the fore. Unfortunately the reaction of Geoffrey Boycott (who joked that Yardy’s depression may be as a result of his below par bowling performance) showed that there is still a real ignorance in the world of sport toward a very serious, and increasingly common problem.
There are a number of professional footballers who have admitted to suffering from depression in some form or another throughout their careers. The most high profile of these cases was of course the tragic suicide of German international Robert Enke. Top level players such as Neil Lennon and Stan Collymore have also spoken about their battles with depression. Despite these players being well known and highly visible their “revelations” have not sparked any meaningful re-action from the footballing community.
Depression in the macho world of football is still a taboo subject. The general opinion seems to run along the same lines as that of the misguided Boycott, that depression is something you can just shake off with a few good performances or a team bonding session down the pub. When the culture of bravado that surrounds football is ingrained in you, it must be incredibly difficult to admit that you are in the grip of an overwhelming and all-consuming illness. When that admission is then treated as a weakness and very probably dismissed, it makes it all the harder to speak up.
Attitudes in football must change, and admittedly there has been some progress in England’s lower leagues, with all players being issued with information regarding depression. This of course is to be welcomed, but football clubs and the footballing authorities can, and should go further.
Football is in the unique position of being a social reference point for many of the people who are considered the most vulnerable to depression. As the effects of the recession continue to reverberate around the country, young men from working class backgrounds are increasingly likely to suffer from depression. They are also the least likely to seek help, the consequence being, that they are also the most likely to take their own lives. This socio-economic group has been the traditional supplier of footballs players and supporters and I believe football has a moral duty to help them.
One of the most valuable things that football can do is break the stigma surrounding depression. It is still seen as something that only happens to people who are down on their luck, people who have nothing going for them, however Lennon and Collymore were highly regarded, well paid Premier League players and Robert Enke was going to the World Cup to represent Germany. Anyone, at any time can be affected.
Depression is at its most destructive when it is ignored and allowed to fester. People who suffer from depression need professional help, they cannot just “pull themselves together”. Football needs to encourage a frank discussion of the facts surrounding what is a very serious illness. Whether we think they are suitable or not, footballers are role models for many young people, if high profile footballing personalities are prepared to talk openly about depression without fear of reprisal then the subject becomes normalised in the minds of the general public. This can only help those affected to seek help instead of attempting to suppress and in many cases ignore this damaging affliction.
Depression at its more advanced stages leaves the sufferer in no doubt as to its presence. However in its infancy it can easily be missed or disregarded, there is an ignorance amongst many (especially young men) as to the symptoms of depression. This is where the footballing community (clubs and associations) can step in and use their positions of influence, to educate the people that enable and justify their existence.
Depression is measurably easier to treat and manage if it is recognised before it reaches its all-consuming stage. If clubs at all levels were encouraged to talk to their players from youth to first team, if associations and clubs could combine to reach out to the masses and explain the early signs and triggers of depression then what a difference that could make.
Education about all aspects of health, physical and mental should be at the core of football. There is a real chance for football to re-assert itself as a force for social wellbeing and tolerance within its support structure, many of our greatest clubs were in fact formed with these grand ideals at their heart. With all the negativity that currently surrounds football and footballers now can be the time for a return to those ideals.
Ignorance, a lack of dialogue and therefore the stigma surrounding it, are the factors that more than any other, allow depression to fester and subsequently ruin lives. Football is in a unique position where it can address all these factors. This is a chance that cannot be missed. Football has a moral obligation to help those who have allowed it to grow, from its humble roots, to the global behemoth it has become.