Gary Speed and mental health in sport

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Henry Bridge pays tribute to the late Gary Speed and looks at how sport deals with mental health issues.

Naturally, the sad news of Gary Speed has dominated the last few days’ headlines. Fans, ex-players, managers, colleagues… all, and more, have been queueing up to voice their respect for the late Wales manager. If the way his untimely departure has united the world of football in grief was not proof enough of Speed’s essential decency and the respect in which he was held, the reaction of Shay Given, a former team mate a good seven years ago, eloquently summed up the shock felt by most, this writer included, on hearing the news.

In a way, it was heartwarming to see how football, so often a petty, rancorous, shallow pursuit these days, managed to unite so splendidly in sorrow, even if it only took another few hours for Mario Balotelli’s latest misadventure to recapture the headlines.

It would be inappropriate, if not downright distasteful, to openly speculate at this time what may have caused Gary Speed to take the drastic step he did. Perhaps the saddest thing about suicide is that, simply, we may never know. As anyone who has lived, and loved, will know, it is hard enough to know everything that goes on inside a person’s mind, even while they are still with us, much less when they are gone. What is certain is that he had a lot going for him, as the obituaries have noted. Handsome, talented, genuinely popular, and whereas many footballers have difficulty with the transition into post-retirement, John Burridge being but one recent example, Gary Speed seemed to be at the start of a highly promising managerial career, having engineered a remarkable turnaround in Welsh fortunes in the space of a few months, with a youthful side that could have developed together under his leadership for years. So much so, that Wales fans could finally look forward to a qualifying series with some optimism, for the first time in years. Speed appeared to have a glittering career behind him, and another one ahead of him. That, for many football fans, simply makes the question even more compelling: why?

The truth is, suicide is not an easy topic. It can happen for a variety of reasons, and can afflict anyone. It is undoubtedly a highly emotional and irrational decision, prompted by the feeling that one simply can’t go on with one’s life as it is, and must escape it somehow. Viewed this way, suicide is the most extreme symptom of this feeling. There are other ways. A family friend of mine was abandoned by her father at a young age – he couldn’t cope with family life, for whatever reason, and just upped and left one day, without saying a word to the family. Over 20 years later, upon his death, they discovered he had lived out the rest of his days living alone in a bedsit in north Wales. By the standards of most people, he was neither particularly successful nor unsuccessful, and had a young family. But, as with Speed, life must have been unbearable to him, and in a moment of desperation, he saw a way out and took it. People naturally tend to look for a single, obvious cause, to try and make sense of such matters (leading to the circulation of some particularly horrible internet rumours this week) and, while sometimes, as in the recent cases of Peter Roebuck and Robert Enke, there superficially appears to be such an explanation, the truth is that such causes at most merely trigger an underlying mental susceptibility. Deaths from cancer are rarely solely caused by immediate environmental factors, and suicide (or death by depression, as it might perhaps better be known) is no different.

The fact is, there is still a huge amount that is not widely understood about mental illnesses, and if some good might come out of Speed’s death, it is that, for once, depression is now being openly talked about across all media. It has been reported that calls to counselling hotlines have increased dramatically this week.

Depression in sport, completely undiscussed even 10 years ago, is now slowly starting to be taken seriously. A lot has been made about the pressures elite sports stars are under, and there is no doubt that working under the scrutiny of millions can contribute to mental stress and breakdowns. Indeed, many of pop culture’s most enduring idols appealed in part because of their troubled, awkward relationship with the limelight – think of Nick Drake, Richey Edwards or Syd Barrett for example. But sports, and football in particular, has by its nature traditionally been a selfish, highly competitive jungle where opponents’ weaknesses are mercilessly, ruthlessly exploited. It has traditionally had little time or sympathy with the weak – look at the way George Best or Paul Gascoigne became figures of fun within the game for how they resorted to alcohol to cope. Only this year, after the England cricketer Michael Yardy dropped out of their World Cup squad halfway through the tournament citing depression and stress, commentator Geoffrey Boycott was quick to suggest that the real cause was that he knew he was not good enough to be in the team. Regrettably, there were plenty who agreed, at least in part, with Boycott. Regardless of Yardy’s merits as a cricketer, such comments showed not only a lack of understanding of his mental difficulties, but a complete lack of sympathy too. Top level sport is inherently brutal, though, so perhaps we should expect nothing else? The example of another former England cricketer, Marcus Trescothick, shows how wrong this line of thinking is. Trescothick, leading run scorer in English county cricket again this year, and perhaps England’s finest one-day batsman, shows firstly that depression is largely unrelated to ability or results on the field. Though it is doubtless dispiriting to be on a losing team all the time, or get out to Shane Warne for a duck every time he comes on to bowl, it does not of itself induce panic attacks, or cause you to wake up in a cold sweat at 4am. Secondly, the case of Trescothick clearly shows that depression and mental illness can be treated, and need not automatically spell the end of a career.

Gary Speed’s death is sad news for anyone who has followed football in the last 20 years. It certainly puts the frustration at a dodgy penalty decision against your team into perspective. It would be a nice tribute if the young Wales team he has helped nurture can break their long duck and finally qualify for a major tournament again, in 2014 or more likely 2016. It would be even better if his death can help us appreciate how little we know about mental illness, if it can lift a few stigmas and encourage us as a society to become more understanding of and sympathetic to the causes of depression which takes more than 600 lives, many of them young and promising, in Ireland each year alone. Gary Speed is one tragedy among many. But he is one we cannot ignore or forget.

Ár dheis Dé go raibh na h-anam.

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