Football is a universal language and no other sport brings out such passionate supporters. Moments are created in football that are reminisced for decades and it unites people due to one common interest, which is a love for the ‘beautiful game.’ However, there are elements of the professional footballing world, that are not so beautiful, none more so than suicide amongst professional and ex-professional footballers.
This issue has received a lot of attention over recent years, due to the tragic events on the 27th November 2011, when Gary Speed ex-Welsh international and Newcastle superstar took his own life, but this is not just a modern phenomenon. Mental illness, depression and suicide has been bubbling under the surface of professional football, unaddressed for far too long. Despite appearing to have it all; fame, money, cars and houses, there is a dark secret lurking in the promised land of becoming a professional footballer. Well-known examples of this are, Justin Fashanu, Robert Enke and Clarke Carlisle. Justin Fashanu killed himself at the young age of 37, over 13 years ago and this brings about some questions. If Justin Fashanu committed suicide over 13 years ago, how can so many of the general public still be blissfully unaware of this problem? Now you may think that it is an issue that does not concern you, you might think “Oh it is only the minority, it will never happen to anyone I know.” Figures indicate, that suicide is the biggest killers of young men aged 18 to 35.
The problem of suicide amongst footballers is an international problem and one that is not just confined to a generation of modern day footballers. Mental illness in the form of depression leads to an irrational mental state and a feeling that suicide is the only logical option. Mental illness does not discriminate against age, with ex-professionals, seeing their chances of getting clinical depression rising by 40% after they retire.
The reasons for depression amongst footballers are widespread and numerous; ranging from the feelings of rejection felt by footballers when clubs no longer need their services, to a sense of unhappiness after retirement due to the fact footballers can no longer emulate the excitement (or high), felt by stepping onto the pitch and quite simply can not cope with the feeling they no longer have any value to society. Clark Carlisle, talked about how the feeling of disappointment after missing a chance to score that could have seen his side QPR promoted to the Premiership, haunted him for the whole summer, leading to an alcohol addiction which resulted in manager Ian Holloway finding him drunk before a game and his admittance to Sporting Chance. Sporting Chance is a clinic set up by ex-international footballer Tony Adams. This is an issue not often thought about, as fans can easily forget a missed chance or blunder by the goalkeeper, whereas footballers such as Carlisle cannot remove themselves from the feeling of letting everybody down and potentially costing the club millions of pounds in revenue. This needs to be addressed especially as footballers with modern technology and media are under immense pressure, where every single one of their moves is analysed and often criticised. Maybe instead of focusing on the negatives, fans and pundits alike should realise they have a duty of care, because even though footballers make millions of pounds and are held up to be God like figures, they are simply just men, with the allure of such a lifestyle becoming too much to handle.
Lets not forget that football clubs are global businesses, so the advertisement of suicide amongst footballers and warning academy players about the problem of mental illness, depression and suicide, is bad for business. Simply, academies do not prepare youngsters for the rejection, feeling’s of unworthiness and the fact that they can be dropped tomorrow without a second thought. The academies need to do more to pick up on the early warning signs of mental illness, they also need to work with the FA and PFA, in order to make sure that the lucky 1% that do make it, and the 99% who do not, have somebody to talk to. It is crucial that sufferers of mental illness have a support system in place to help them manage their lives in order to avoid the tragic fate that befalls such footballers as Gary Speed or Justin Fashnau.
Although there is a long way to go, steps are beings made to try and cut out this problem. Clark Carlisle head of the PFA is spear heading a campaign to raise awareness of mental illness, with the FA chairman David Bernstein, admitting the issue has been neglected and saying he wants to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health issues. The future does look bright, with the documentary ‘Football Suicides Secret’ on BBC 3 raising awareness of this issue. Coupled with tools such as a 24-hour hotlines, for players suffering from depression, set up as part of the Robert Enke Foundation. If the clubs, PFA, FA and fans realise they do have a duty of care, by working together we can eradicate this problem of mental illness, depression and suicide.