Experts call for greater acceptance of depression after Speed’s death
In the wake of Gary Speed's apparent suicide on Sunday, Sabrina Parkar examines the issue of mental health in sport
Little did we know that Gary Speed’s appearance on Saturday’s BBC Football Focus would be the last time fans would see him alive.
The former Wales’s manager, 42, was found hanged in his Cheshire home on Sunday morning and the shocking news could not have hit the world of football, or the world of sport, any harder.
While tributes have poured in from thousands of grieving fans and players, many have been left in a deep sense of bewilderment.
Former Wales international Robbie Savage is just one of hundreds to have paid tribute to his former team-mate. “He had a great job, and a great team and he was on the verge of something big,” he said.
With so much potential as a promising international manager, questions remain over why Speed would take his own life, as is believed to be the case.
Though exact details of his death are unanswered, speculation has circulated linking his apparent suicide to the death of fellow footballer Robert Enke.
The 32-year-old German goalkeeper took his own life in 2009 after a lengthy struggle with depression.
“In our achievement-oriented society a goalkeeper, the last bastion in defence, can’t be a depressive,” said Ronald Reng, the author of Enke’s biography. “So Robert summoned up a huge amount of strength to keep his depression secret. He locked himself away in his illness.”
The timing of Speed’s death could not have been more coincidental for former footballer Stan Collymore, who on Saturday went public about his personal experiences with the illness.
“So fit and healthy one day, mind, body and soul withering and dying the next,” he described his illness his Twitter account.
Though it has not been certified that depression is to blame for Speed’s untimely death, it sparks many questions about why some of our sporting heroes suffer from the illness.
To the general public, the life of a top flight sports star is an enviable and inspirational dream, where money and fame come hand in hand.
To an insider, the reality can be quite different.
“Sportsmen and women face constant pressures. When you are in the public eye you are under a microscope all the time,” said Dr Ashok Patel, a consultant psychiatrist.
“The persistent battle to prove yourself worthy in a competitive field can eventually take its toll and lead to mental health issues.”
According to mental health charity Mind, up to 10 per cent of the population are suffering from depression at any one time.
Although everyone is exposed to factors of depression, the risk is much higher for those in the public eye.
“Successes and failures are treated in the same light if you are a sports player,” continued Dr Patel. “When you win you’re on top of the world and the world is on top with you.
“But the moment you lose, you are vilified by the media and you start to genuinely believe that you’re useless.”
Many people are failing to identify mental health issues in athletes as a growing concern, and in light of the weekend’s events, it is clearly an issue that must be acknowledged.
“The macho culture of football means we’ve seen very few professionals come forward to talk about mental health problems but it is only by speaking out that we can increase understanding,” said Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind.
Depression is often mistaken as vulnerability and not seen as the illness that it is.
For Collymore he describes it as just that, an illness. “Not bad, mad, crazy or weak, just ill,” he said.
It is not simply a case of “pulling yourself together” but something which must be treated.
“It’s probably a man thing too, but a dressing room is supposed to be an upbeat place and it is not the environment for any show of perceived weakness,” Alan Hansen wrote in his Telegraph column.
It seems mental health issues are still suffered in silence.
Former All Blacks wing, John Kirwan, admitted he remained silent about his illness as he thought getting help for his depression was a sign of weakness.
The truth is, getting help, is a sign of strength.
“For men this macho bravery is still apparent. When things go wrong, their ego is hurt more thus depression may be triggered,” said Dr Patel.
According to Dr Patel, 40 to 50 per cent of those who commit suicide do so spontaneously as a result of silent suffering.
For Collymore, depression has not triggered severe suicidal thoughts, but for other sufferers this territory is all too familiar.
“They don’t take the leap of faith. They address a practical problem with a practical solution to them, and that is taking their own life. And sadly too many take that route out of this hell,” said Collymore.
And Farmer expects more cases to emerge within football.
“Gary Speed is not the first footballer to experience mental distress, nor, sadly, will he be the last,” he said.
If Speed was diagnosed with depression, it proves how suddenly the heartbreaking illness can take control of your body.
It proves how sports stars are not immune from the disease.
And it proves that without accepting that it exists, depression cannot be treated.