This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of The Football Pink

Mental illness is still quite a taboo subject, despite society’s efforts to try and promote greater understanding and acceptance. Here, ALEX LEONARD tackles the issue, through some high profile examples from the world of football.

July is the coldest month in the Australian calendar. In Ararat, a city suffocated by mountains and rural land 120 miles west of Melbourne, the temperature can drop as low as three degrees centigrade throughout mid-winter. There is minimal rainfall. Starved of moisture, the land is harsh, dry and dusty.

During this time of the year in 1919, a scarred, unkempt and bearded Scot, who had emigrated five years previously, was released following a three year prison sentence for manslaughter. Hardened by his time confined within the walls of Ararat Lunatic Asylum, he remained in Australia for just ten further months, eventually returning to Britain on the White Star Line’s SS Ceramic.

Naturally, his reappearance must have been shocking for those who knew of him and his unusual personality. Regardless that he was supposed to be dead (stories told of the Scot’s execution for cattle-rustling in his adopted nation), this enigmatic man, this walking rumour, was clinically insane and notorious for murdering his sibling.

Clean-shaven and fresh-faced, both he and his brother had set out to run a farm in Tongola, Australia, in 1914; yet only one returned. Isolated agricultural life became unbearably tense, and by the conclusion of a heated spring day in November 1915, one sibling lay dead and the other unconscious. The murderer, nicknamed ‘Sandy’, had shot his brother and then turned the gun on himself, only to fail in the suicide attempt.

Sandy, facially scarred and in financial turmoil for the remainder of his life, died in September 1959, aged 79, in an Edinburgh mental institution. Like his brother whose life had ended so prematurely, the little money he left was not enough for a headstone. However, in 2014, Everton Football Club held a small service in the man’s memory and a gravestone was finally erected – for, after all, he had scored the match-winning goal for the Toffees in their 1-0 win over Newcastle in the 1906 F.A Cup final.

In fact, the bearded and violent ‘Sandy’ was none other than record goal-scorer and Everton legend Alex Young, a prolific and talented striker. He played for the Blues from 1901-11, and scored 125 goals in around 300 appearances. He sits fourth on Everton’s list of all-time top scorers, behind only superhuman Dixie Dean, Graeme Sharp and Bob Latchford.

When the news of his arrest filtered through to the Everton hierarchy, they contacted the Australian police and declared that, in fact, this act of extreme violence was not completely spontaneous. What the Everton board discussed with Young’s captors revealed something about his personality that had evidently been played down during his career. They were able to “testify to Young’s mental unsoundness”. Subsequently, the striker’s charge was dropped from murder to manslaughter.

It is evident that Young’s colleagues at Everton were aware of him having problems (whether they suspected he was mentally ill or not), yet never did anything more than acknowledge it. Incredibly, in 1915, The Liverpool Echo reported how Sandy had “a curious temperament…and there were periods which suggested that he suffered severe pains in the head”. It appears therefore that it was only possible to openly address Young’s illness once he was in custody thousands of miles away.

Just like Young’s extraordinary tale, the subject of mental illness in the early 1900s was cloaked in mystery. Attitudes towards it were incredibly Victorian and it was perhaps a fear of the unknown combined with masculine ideals that resulted in Everton’s successful forward having such a difficult, traumatic life. He became a victim of the society in which he lived.

Yet, even though Young murdered his brother a century ago, it is possible the archaic attitudes that oppressed him are still not entirely behind us. Society may have become far more knowledgeable and politically correct regarding mental illness, however, it is undoubtedly still a tabooed topic and perhaps even more so in the impenetrable ‘bubble’ of football.

Male suicide rates are incredibly high in the UK. The Office for National Statistics revealed in February that in 2013 the number of suicides was the highest since 2001, accounting for 19 male deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 5.1 female deaths. This suggests not only how mental health issues are more common in men, but that they are also more likely to struggle confronting it.

If mental health and its stigma is a real problem for men to begin with, then the stereotypical ‘macho’ culture within football cannot help. In March 2014, the BBC published an article entitled ‘Is macho culture causing young men to take their own lives?’ in which Jonny Benjamin, a man who almost committed suicide, explores the impact of masculinity’s ideals on men:

The dictionary itself synonymises ‘masculinity’ with phrases like ‘toughness’ and ‘robustness’…the fear of not living up to such expectations led me to almost taking my life. What stopped me was another man’s understanding. Perhaps we need to redefine the meaning of masculinity, stop telling males to “man up”, and start showing them that grown men do actually cry.

Building on this, here is an extract from a discussion found in The Independent archives (September 1992) in which Richard Ryder, a specialist in teenage psychological disorders, suggests little has changed between then and 2014:

Look at the macho crudeness of pop culture: the studied ugliness of modern art, the bare chests and beer bellies of our lager lout culture. Look at the fascination with violent sports – football, boxing and wrestling. Men are constantly at pains to prove how manly they are . . . everywhere there is an obsession with manliness.

Despite 22 years having passed between the publishing of these two articles, a fundamental issue persists – that masculinity and its ideals can be destructive. Firstly, there is Jonny Benjamin, who struggled with his identity and felt he could not adhere to machismo. Furthermore, Mr. Ryder theorises how it leads to youths committing crimes – and he emphasises how this culture thrives in sport. Therefore, if those who obey the principles of ‘masculinity’ aspire to be physically and mentally superior, it becomes understandably difficult to approach the topic of mental illness in an environment which promotes and conforms to this competitive culture.

Perhaps these factors point to why a significant amount of footballers struggle with their mental wellbeing. Recently, ex-Arsenal defender Kenny Sansom spoke to the Mirror, for he has been sleeping rough and struggling with alcoholism. He said: “I don’t want to be around, I don’t want to be living this horrible life.”

Clarke Carlisle

Significantly, the most high-profile stories like Sansom’s come from professionals who have retired from the game. Over recent years, two of the most well-known figures to have publically struggled with their mental health are Clarke Carlisle and Paul Gascoigne – and the pivotal factor which triggered or amplified their illnesses was a lack of football.

Carlisle, who attempted suicide in December 2014, has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for years. In early 2001, while playing for QPR, he tore his posterior cruciate ligament, leading doctors to speculate his career may be over. He was informed of the possibility that he may even have had to use a stick in order to walk. Although this was not the eventual outcome, and Carlisle did in fact return to playing professional football, the possibility of never being able to play again was devastating. He tried to kill himself, and was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder.

Gascoigne’s problems were intensified as a result of the conclusion of his successful career. Recently, concerning photographs emerged of the ex-England international looking extremely gaunt after being found outside his home with a bottle of vodka. The following extract from the Telegraph outlines the scale of his issues:

Since his playing career ended in 2004 Gascoigne’s problems with alcoholism, drugs and mental illness have worsened – retiring from football ‘ripped his heart out’. Since retiring the 43-year-old has been sectioned three times under the Mental Health Act and has described how, when he hit rock bottom, he was snorting cocaine and drinking a litre of gin a day, which left him delusional and afraid to leave his room.

It is therefore evident how the abrupt end to a lengthy, intense, and macho professional football career can be traumatic for some players. However the departure from football itself is not the pivotal issue – it is its culture and environment.

To support this theory, it is important to consider the benefits of exercise upon mental wellbeing. In December 2008, a French study entitled ‘Football et Psychose’ by Franck Nolot and Christian Vedie was published in Annales Médico-psychologiques, an established academic journal. Fascinatingly, the study explores the impact of football upon those who suffer from varying forms of psychosis. It was translated and published in English in 2012. The BJPsych Bulletin describes how the article highlights: “the potential benefits of sport and physical activity in treating people diagnosed with psychosis.”

To very briefly sum up the study, it explores how football – in seven-a-side format – can be incredibly advantageous to patients. Nolot and Vedie investigate the expressive nature of the sport and its positive affects upon individuals who struggle with social skills and articulation:

Some patients who are considered difficult are very keen on football and it changes their behaviour…on the day of a game they are more open and calmer. Patients who come along as spectators also benefit as they are carried away by the flow of the game, the noise and the excitement. [Some patients] are men of few words. Most interviews with them are not very fruitful. On the other hand, their way of expressing themselves through football is very rich. A new language is freed up, the language of the body. [Some patients] with schizophrenia we have met in the beautiful game during these past 25 years are able to overcome their problems.

Football allowed the patients to form relationships and develop social skills. Through the sport’s enforced rules, they understood rights and wrongs: the count of serious incidents was considerably low in comparison to the number of matches analysed. Nolot and Vedie conclude how the sport motivates the patients, keeping them engaged and interested.

Separated from society, with no external pressure on the patients to succeed, causal games of football can be a positive form of therapy for the patients. This can be contrasted with professional football and its immense pressures, ridiculously high wages and media dominance. Players at the top of the game are never out of the spotlight. And as the world’s most popular and most lucrative game continues to grow, the level of obsession surrounding it has reached a concerning level: we live in an era in which it is possible to purchase Cristiano Ronaldo boxer shorts, after all. Perhaps this mania is unhealthy for the professionals – just consider the amount of abuse some players receive on Twitter for losing. They are under more pressure to perform consistently than ever before. It is therefore possible that this could be dangerously intensifying the masculine, competitive nature that already exists among professionals. Whatever the inner politics of the sport may be, it is evident that attitudes need to change – and soon.

When Nolot and Vedie interviewed a patient about his experiences in the study, he gave a simple, powerful answer: “football is what brings us to life”, he said. His response is a fitting conclusion for this article, as it reminds us of what football should always represent. It must, above all else, remain a unifying, enjoyable, beneficial sport. Nobody should suffer at the hands of machoism and ignorance.

Those who love and play the beautiful game should not feel unable to speak about their emotions any longer. In order for the sport to truly progress and move away from its archaic values, we must work to create a far more open-minded, understanding culture within football – and be able to give support to individuals who need it the most.