Hearts and Minds

Two weeks ago a story broke in Germany regarding the postponement of a Bundesliga game between Cologne v Mainz 05. The reason for the game being postponed was that the referee, 41 year old Babak Rafati, had been found in his hotel room bath by his assistants with his wrists cut. He had attempted suicide, citing depression as the illness that had driven him to the very last resort.

This was listened to, and reported, with considerable sympathy by the German public and media, as it came close to the two year anniversary of the death of Hannover 96 goalkeeper, Robert Enke. As a professional footballer, with the World in his hands and feet, what could have driven this German international to stand in front of a regional express train, on a level crossing, and end his life? He had been diagnosed with depression six years previously, and the death of his two year old daughter in 2006 had apparently accelerated an illness that he felt could only be cured by not having to suffer at it’s hands any more.

On Saturday morning, ex-professional footballer, journalist and radio summariser, and long-term sufferer of depression, Stan Collymore, sent this tweet explaining how the illness affects him, and what he tries to do to combat it. Stan has always been vocal about his condition, and it is to his credit that he has continued to explain and try to verbalise the demons that haunt him. When he first declared that he was suffering from depression in 2002, he was met with sneers and derision by many. How can he be ‘depressed’? He earns £40,000 a week, plays football in front of thousands of people and does a job that most grown men would PAY to do…let alone have the riches that accompany it. Get a grip. Stop making excuses. Man up. These were the phrases that accompanied the pub chatter and gossip. Collymore knew this, and has been speaking out about it ever since, in an effort to change the minds of those of us fortunate not to suffer from the illness.

And then there was today. This Sunday lunchtime, it was announced that Gary Speed, 42 year old manager of the Welsh national football team, and ex-player for Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United, had been found dead at his house in the early hours of the morning. He had been found by his wife, hanged. He leaves a wife and two boys, and spent yesterday with Dan Walker on BBC1, previewing the weekend’s football fixtures. There were no signs, apparently, that there was anything out of the ordinary. He was lively, witty and insightful as usual.

As a result, Dan Walker has been tweeting today about whether or not there was anything he could have said that could have made a difference. It seems to me that, however profound you may want to be, or regard yourself as, it is extremely unlikely that a kind word could possibly save a soul that must have been in so much pain internally, fighting such demons as to have to end the life of such a fantastic player, potential as a manager – Wales had climbed 50 FIFA ranking places in his year long tenure as national team boss – and most importantly as a father and husband.

I sincerely hope that the illness finally is met with the compassion and understanding that it deserves. We all have dark moments in our lives, that affect our minds: those times when the anxiety, pressure or sheer bloody stress of your life can get on top of everything, and all there seems to be is confusion, anger or an unidentifiable gloom that surrounds you. I know I have at times, but by no means would I classify it as clinical depression, nor want to worry anyone that it might be. But I am lucky. It passes. For those that it doesn’t, all we can do is listen if they need to talk. Space if they need it, but mostly our understanding that they are ill, and not looking for sympathy or sneering attitudes. The tide of understanding is turning, and Gary Speed’s tragic passing today will hopefully change the attitude of a public and media that has traditionally chosen not to understand or recognise mental health in this way.

Today the beautiful, British game lost a true legend. Rest in peace, Mr Speed.