Removing depression stigma is Iain Russell’s goal

Livingston star Iain Russell tackles the unspoken issue in football – mental health

SATURDAY, 1.45pm. Football fans begin to gather around the grounds. An atmosphere starts to build. The chatter of anticipated victory over a rival team.

In the dressing room, a different picture. The players await their fate.

Will I be starting today?

Will I play well?

Will I get injured?

Will I get abused by the fans?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This scenario will not have crossed the minds of football fans. They only see the players out on the field playing the beautiful game we all love. However, this uncertainty is very much part of the players’ psyche.

Some players cope with self-doubt, others do not, and for them the consequences can be devastating. The “dark clouds” can be overwhelming.

But, underneath all the glory, footballers are only human and, therefore, still suffer the ups and downs that every person on this planet feels.

The recent untimely death of Gary Speed has raised the profile of depression amongst footballers and sportsmen in general. Prior to this tragedy the most high profile case in football was that of German international goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life in November 2009.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Enke’s situation was extreme – his daughter died in 2006 aged two due to a heart defect. After his death, Enke’s widow revealed that he had been treated for clinical depression for six years, and had been concerned about the consequences that might result from this becoming public knowledge.

Regardless of the specifics of Enke’s tragic case, there is no doubt that to be male and to be a professional sports star and to be depressed is not something many find comfortable to talk about.

Illness knows no boundary of wealth, profession, race, colour, creed or religion. It can strike anyone at any given time.

Sportsmen have in the past been ridiculed for showing the “weakness” of having mental illness.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Former Liverpool striker Stan Collymore was outspoken about his own personal battle with depression. However this was met in a confrontational way from a minority, accusing Collymore of “attention seeking” and using the illness to “make excuses” for his past behaviour. The striker didn’t even find sympathy from his own manager at Aston Villa and was publicly mocked by boss John Gregory. An ignorant reaction and counter-productive if we expect others to follow Collymore and seek help.

The difficulties of admitting to depression are magnified for professional athletes, in a world where bravado and hyper-masculinity can mean money, fame and endorsements. It becomes near impossible to admit to what many perceive as a weakness without realising the courage it takes for a man to admit he has a problem.

Thankfully to some extent, today, the public perspective on mental illness in professional sport is changing. A number of high profile sportsmen such as Collymore, Johnny Wilkinson and Neil Lennon have spoken out about their battle with depression.

But what about players who are not in the spotlight, plying their trade away from the glitz and the glamour of the top leagues?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It is widely acknowledged that one in four people will suffer depression at some time in their lives. There are literally hundreds of professional players around the world struggling with debilitating illness. The nature of sport doesn’t help. Players are under constant public scrutiny. Society has an expectation of how a footballer should be. They live with constant uncertainty.

Is the sportsman predisposed to mental illness or is the sport itself responsible? Sport induced depression may develop through different triggers; the stress of continual peak performance, the despair in long periods of injury, short term contracts coupled with financial insecurity, selection based on managerial whims, a run of bad games producing fans’ abuse. The highs and lows of football are very intense, focusing on such small detail to gain advantage and then enjoying victory for such a few snatched moments before the next game arrives.

All these can weigh heavily on the mind of the player.

The mind is not a muscle. If a player pulls or injures a muscle he goes to the physio and it gets fixed. He can see the problem, it is physical.

How do you fix a cerebral injury? You can’t see it. No one wants to talk about it. Taboo. You suffer in silence.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In your depression, all that is happening in the present is the anticipation of pain in the future.

Having personally been through the highs, and more often the lows, of a Scottish footballer it is easy to see a depressive mood forming.

I have been playing professionally in Scotland since I was 16 years old and over the past 13 years I have dreamed of playing on the biggest stage. However my playing career has been one of hard work and endless endeavour to succeed without having reached the heights I dreamed of.

Have I given up? No chance.

However there have been times I have felt like it. From the early stages of my playing days I was released from Rangers and Motherwell before I was 20 years old. I still remember crying outside Fir Park after being told by Terry Butcher I wasn’t good enough. Hundreds and hundreds of players suffer this anguish and never recover from it.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

From that moment outside Fir Park I have fought and struggled for contracts throughout the SFL. I played part time, worked through the summer months on building sites to make ends meet but never giving up on my dream.

At one club I was treated with total disrespect by a certain manager and bullied to leave the club on loan. I felt so low going into training and every Saturday I had to sit up in the stand and watch instead of playing. I have seen this type of situation occur at clubs to many friends. It is like no other profession, where a member of staff can be treated with disdain and there is no redress. Football is ruthless.

Footballers are stereotyped as over-confident, arrogant men, but we are analysed and criticised every day of our working life. This can affect even the most confident human being. You cannot hide as a footballer, if you are suffering from depression you are still being assessed and judged every single day.

We search for the highs that are few and far between, and when they come it feels as if it has all been worth it. But they don’t last long enough.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

My family has come to every match since I was 10 years old and when I score a goal it is for them. Sometimes it is not even elation, but more of a relief to score just to give something back to my family for supporting me through such a troubled profession. They have suffered the lows with me.

It is very difficult for sportsmen to admit to be suffering from depression. The stigma and perception of depression in football is taboo in an alpha male dominated industry. The phrase “man up” is often mockingly thrown in the direction of anyone who dares to do anything as unmasculine as show emotion or admit vulnerability.

What is being done to change this attitude? The English PFA issued a guide book for its members at the start of the season that looks at the unique stresses of being a professional sportsman and suggests ways to handle them. This was in response to the deaths of Robert Enke and Rushden and Diamonds goalkeeper Dale Roberts. The booklet, entitled The Footballers’ Guidebook, contains advice, helpline numbers and case studies on suffering depression from Andy Cole, Paul Gascoigne and Neil Lennon.

In Scotland the PFA in its recent newsletter included an article on depression and its website also has lots of useful information to assist players who feel they may need help. The PFA has teamed up with the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and others to try and end the stigma and discrimination of mental illness. The SAMH has a website, a phone line and walk-in resource centres. Details on these contacts can be found in the PFA newsletter or on its website.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The stigma attached to mental illness needs to be removed to prevent further tragedies. It is very hard for players to know where to go and who to turn to when they start feeling low.

Do not suffer in silence, talk to someone. Use the agencies out there. They can help to lift those dark clouds.

No need to suffer in silence

IF YOU think you have depression, it is vital to seek help as soon as possible, and the first port of call is your GP.

There are no physical tests for depression, and so your GP will ask lots of questions about your general health, and how the way you are feeling is affecting you mentally and physically, before being able to recommend treatment. Any discussion you have with your GP will be confidential.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The charity Action on Depression, which says it is the only national charity working specifically with and for people affected by depression in Scotland, also provides a range of support. Its information service offers phone – 0808 802 2020 – and e-mail support for those who need to talk about how they are feeling.

It also runs community courses and self-help support groups across the country. And it runs online services through its website

Other support services include the Samaritans, who are available 24 hours a day on 08457 90 90 90. Breathing Space Scotland is open from 6pm to 2am, Monday to Friday, and 24 hours from Friday evening to Monday morning on 0800 838587.