Depression in football: How can highly paid professional footballers become depressed?!
Updated: Nov 13, 2019
Every now and then, a story gains some momentum in the media about another high-profile athlete who is depressed, suffering from a psychological / mental health problem, or made an attempt to take their own life. I've been asked to comment a few times on this area. My blog below is based on my appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live on depression and sport, with Michael Vaughan and Clarke Carlisle. It may be from December 2011, but depression and the need to support footballers isn't going to go away. Here is my edited blog:
The tragic news towards the end of November that Gary Speed (ex-Wales football international, then Wales football team manager) had hung himself sent shock waves through the football world and beyond. Why would a man with so much going for himself, choose to end his own life?
Why would a man with a loving wife, two young children, a multi-million pound house, a highly valued job, support from fans, a successful track record as a player and now as a manager, choose to end his life? On the face of it, it doesn't make any sense.
While I do not know many of the details of Gary Speed’s life, and his psychological state, his suicide echoed that of Robert Enke, a goalkeeper, who played for various European clubs as well as the German squad in Euro 2008. In November 2009, aged 32, Enke committed suicide. He went to a railway level-crossing and stood in front of an oncoming train. He had left a suicide note. Later, his widow revealed that her husband had been suffering from depression for the previous 5-years and was under the care of a psychiatrist. During this period his daughter, Lara, died of a heart defect and he struggled to cope with this loss. Enke’s story has been captured by his friend Ronald Deng, in the excellent book, A life too short (click to see on Amazon).
Here are some stark statistics on the extent of the problem:
Depression is common, affecting 8-12% of the population each year (1).
It is more commonly diagnosed in women, but that may be mainly due to women being more likely to present for help and/or doctors more readily spot the signs in women (2)
Suicide is the most common cause of death in men under 35 years of age (3)
Approximately 5,500 people in the UK die from suicide each year (4)
Men are three times as likely than women to die by suicide (5)
These statistics illustrate the severity of the situation. Suicide has a huge impact on family, loved-ones and friends. As the stats show, it is not as rare as you might have first thought. Suicide is not inevitable for people struggling with depression or major life stress. Depression and suicide affect all types of people, in all walks of life.
With top-flight footballers, we see is them performing on the pitch and under the spotlight. There are pressures within the game, with struggles to gain and maintain form, challenges when out with injury. There can be difficulties with teammates and management. Critical ‘fans’ and comments in the media. Everyone seems to have an opinion on their performance.
Outside football, these players can experience what anyone else can: problems at home, difficult relationships, loved one’s who fall ill or there may be some other misfortune.
Then these players might have been on a likely path to experience psychological difficulties anyway, whether they became a footballer, tennis player, shop worker or unemployed. For instance, perhaps they experienced childhood trauma, were always an anxious child or had low self-esteem.
A problem with depression is that when a person is struggling the most, when they would benefit most from help, they are least likely to reach out for help. When depressed, one's outlook on life and the future is bleak – pointless, hopeless, without the expectation of improvement. Unfortunately, suicide can become considered as a way to stop the suffering or to solve the problem. However, it doesn’t have to be this way as effective treatments exist for depression which can bring about improvements within days or a few weeks. This can be through evidence-based talking therapies or anti-depressants. As a Clinical Sports Psychologist, I have the clinical skills and experience to help sports and non-sports people every week with a range of common psychological problems - often depression - helping them to understand what is going on and to reclaim their life from the darkness of depression. Let's help those who may be suffering, to get help earlier.
The Office for National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report, 2001
Better Or Worse: A Longitudinal Study Of The Mental Health Of Adults In Great Britain, National Statistics, 2003
The National Service Framework For Mental Health – Five Years On, Department Of Health, 2005
Samaritans suicide statistics, 2004
Samaritans Information Resource Pack, 2004