Mental health and football - from secret shame to shining light

Stories like those of Billy Kee and Simon Thomas show how far football has come in addressing mental illness

BY Ciaran Bradley 14:28 Friday 9 February 2018, 14:28 9 Feb 2018

Credit @ Nigel French/PA Archive/PA Images

Watching mental illness metastasize in a family member is an intensely personal experience. It is a vice from which nothing escapes. The sense of self goes from being taken for granted to something out of reach, and darkness subsumes everything. The unnerving, dispossessing traits of depression take the person you know from you, and them from themselves.

I have been both the person watching, and the person watched.

Depression and anxiety among sportspeople is one that particularly fascinates. The nature of depression in particular means that getting up and brushing your teeth becomes the most arduous task one can imagine. The idea, then, of having to perform to the best of your ability, in front of 70,000 fans that hate you and everything you stand for, is something that Dante would have struggled to write. While exercise can help to alleviate depression, it becomes malign when doing is so intertwined with your self-esteem.

Sport is invariably about ‘us’ and ‘them’. But this illusion of separation damages when sportspeople are seen as somehow apart when it comes to mental illness. As trite as it may sound, one wouldn’t expect a pay packet to immunise someone from cancer, and yet there can be a general, prevailing ignorance amongst fans that footballers’ money should mean they are equipped for the mental rigours of the professional game. Thankfully, accepted wisdom can be loudly challenged, and has been by the likes of Billy Kee of Accrington Stanley, who confided in the world just this week.

Kee at once adheres to and confounds the football stereotype. In his Football Focus interview, he is plain-spoken and straightforward. But what he is talking about is rare: that he felt his world steadily crumble, that he found himself “rocking on the bed crying, and I wasn't enjoying it. I wanted to quit.” His mental degeneration was heading down a path that becomes steadily less lit as it winds, and has robbed football and the world of shining lights like Gary Speed. Billy wanted to kill himself.

Thankfully, he was not counted among the 7,090 who took their lives in the UK and Ireland at last annual count – 75% of which are men. Billy relented to and confronted his illness, with the help of his family, friends and club. Stanley gave him time off to recalibrate his life, and his description of his team-mates’ response is singularly moving: “I can come in in the morning and say 'I'm really struggling today.’ They'll put an arm round you and they'll give you a cuddle. You don't get that in football. It's a lot of fronts but with our team, there are no fronts. They're so honest.”

But it is Billy’s honesty that will save at least one life, and likely many more. It is a sincerity of spirit shared by former Sky broadcaster Simon Thomas who only today wrote a piece in which he catalogued his grief after the death of his wife. Simon was the face of football, but it was just one of many that he presented to the world. Prior to presenting a national broadcast from Old Trafford, he excused himself and found himself hyper-ventilating and crying on a bathroom floor.

That we are in a situation where we can discuss Simon and Billy’s stories is a blessing. Kevin Kilbane’s interview on OTB:AM earlier today showed that this is a new phenomenon, compared with when he started in the hard-drinking days of the early 1990s. “Lads were going out three or four nights a week [when I started], and many times I would have thought that lads were going out to try and shield something from their mind.

We are still in a position where suicide is the single biggest killer of men in the UK, and young men in Ireland are at greatest risk of dying by their own hand. But when a young man begins to feel their grip on their life begin to slip, it is stories like those of Billy and Simon that will mean someone is more likely to reach out a hand.

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