It seems a little odd to be writing this. Preparing to expose my innermost insecurity over a worldwide twitter feed. However, it’s a very important issue that needs its advocates. Before I move on to the bulk of this article I need to make a disclosure. I have bipolar disorder. I am diagnosed as bipolar I. That may not mean much to many of you, but it essentially means that I have deep periods of depression perpetuated by feelings that I could rule the world. For the most part I can blend into society unnoticed. In highs and lows my illness or condition, or disability, or whatever you want to call it, is obvious.
Why am I telling you this? It’s not for sympathy, so please don’t think I’m asking for that. I just want people to be aware that, actually those feelings you have are not isolated to your world.
Football is a pressure cooker. So many players take to the pitch every week. Their every move is scrutinised by thousands of people. We have seen a succession of players in recent years open up about their mental health issues and that is to be applauded. The horrible fact that goes beneath the radar is that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. That is a hideous statistic. The fact that we haven’t seen more suicides amongst footballers borders on a miracle.
At the age of 41 Tim Carter took his own life. Now he wasn’t the greatest keeper to play for Sunderland. But he wasn’t the worst keeper. He played second fiddle to Tony Norman. That is not, however, the reason he took his own life. The reason is an uncomfortable truth that we all need to accept a little. Tim Carter suffered from mental illness. He died as a result.
When footballers stand in front of us they are there to be criticised. Every stray pass is met with derision. That is the nature of football and to be honest I don’t want to take that away. We should be able to criticise people who are paid to do a job we would all love to do. To earn the money that they earn for playing a game we all love seems a dream ticket. What I want to address is the silence in talking about it.
How many players have gone through terrible spells for us? Countless. How many of those were going through issues that contributed to the poor performances? We don’t know the answer to that. In any workplace, adjustments need to be made for ill health. In football the players are expected to just keep on going. That must be exhausting for any player suffering from anxiety or depression. Darron Gibson has just been released, and you could argue rightly so. What nobody at the club has said is what they are doing to help him through his issues?
Footballers need to feel comfortable in publicly stating they have problems. The wider football media are turning on to that issue, but we need more. Footballers are lauded as stars but castigated as villains. They are placed on a pedestal for the ordinary people to pin their hopes on. That is an enormous amount of pressure.
So, let me turn to the fans. Again, I will turn to the facts. By the latest statistics one in every four people will suffer from mental illness. That is a quarter of the crowd at any football match. However, through hard times and good, supporting a football team is not necessarily a bad thing for mental health. The sense of unity, belonging to something, shared pain etc. Contributes to a lack of isolation feelings. Being a football fan even in bad times can actually be good for you.
That does not mean that we shouldn’t look out for each other though. We should talk more. We should have players talking about their issues. For anyone going through mental illness at the moment remember that you are not alone. Visit the CALM website. What we need to do is get players to feel comfortable opening up. Allow them that and not only might you see an improved performance but at the extremes, you may save a life.