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Football as a Mental Health Saviour

While there are still many parts of it resisting change, football is increasingly being used as a platform to spread awareness when it comes to subjects that used to be ignored. For things to change it takes brave people to tell their stories. Our writer Aaron Connolly describes his experiences with depression and how he found unexpected support within and from football.

 

Depression and anxiety: two subjects often avoided in the macho-man world of football, misunderstood by far too many. I have had the misfortune of suffering both over the last few years, and I can all but guarantee that someone you know, or more harrowingly, someone you are close to has suffered too. I’m a 26-year-old, part-time junior footballer with a wonderful wife, a beautiful young child and a reasonably successful career in finance. Just a “normal guy”, right? Truth be told, some people may feel I have everything anyone could ask for, and this is where the misunderstanding often lays. This is my story of my very own “dark cloud” and how in football I found a safe place.

The most recent statistics show 1 in 5 adults in the UK will suffer from depression and/or anxiety; 20% of our population. It’s scary. If you translate this statistic to a regular football changing room then there may be 4 or 5 sufferers in each club up and down the country. Is there a sufficient support system for this? I’m not so sure. The NHS is stretched to its limits and struggling to prioritise mental health above more noticeable epidemics, so this is why it’s time to speak and share.

I was first diagnosed with depression almost four years ago. I spent a few months feeling really low in mood and exceptionally tired, unable to complete the most basic of tasks. I began running late for work, skipping football training with no real excuse, not going to the gym and eating takeaway as I didn’t have the desire to cook at night. This all continued for 2-3 months without me really noticing until I was eventually dropped on a Saturday afternoon without explanation. Then it began to click; something wasn’t right. I spoke to my girlfriend (now wife) and she advised I should see a doctor as she had noticed small changes in my behaviour. I was waking up in the morning with the feeling of being physically chained to my bed, crippled with anxiety about leaving my home and I couldn’t make any sense of it. I have always been quiet and reserved, not much of a social being but this was different.

I went to see my GP and after less than two minutes in her company, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, given a prescription of sertraline and ordered to take six weeks out of the office. I really thought the diagnosis, the tablets and the rest would save me from this constant darkness but it also felt unfair to continue to play football so I feigned an injury at training and drifted into the shadows. I had been performing poorly anyway and was out of the team, so no harm or at least that’s how it seemed at the time. I had gained weight from the continual flow of junk food, my fitness was found wanting as my lack of training or commitment caught up with me. In my mind I was doing the right thing, a white lie wouldn’t hurt the manager or my teammates, and my dignity would be protected. In a few weeks I’d be back and firing, no one any wiser. Hindsight has proven to be a wonderful thing.

The 6-week sick line flew past and I still hadn’t left the house. I couldn’t even bear to walk my dog, let alone go to work. I would spend all day eating crisps and sweets, with the odd slice of toast convincing myself I was eating real food. Work was easily handled, the doctor only too gladly upped my prescription dosage and signed me off for longer. On the other hand, I was under pressure from the football club, they were paying me and I wasn’t going to the physio or giving any information on my supposed injury, so I had to either come clean or be creative. I’m not ashamed to admit I drifted as low as suicidal thoughts. Not that I wanted to kill myself, I just didn’t want to be alive, could I find a way of doing it… that was the general notion of these thoughts.

It’s tough to relive this, really tough, but I just about managed to summon enough rationale in my thinking to realise my expectant girlfriend and unborn son did not deserve that hurt and this is where football stepped in and saved me.

I decided I had to speak to someone, preferably someone I trusted and who could support me, but not be overbearing with their words of advice. I returned to football. The manager and assistant who were both new at the club asked me in to their office as they sensed something wasn’t right; my stories were no longer adding up. For some reason we didn’t have a game this particular Saturday and we were asked to report for training. I travelled alone rather than meeting any of the boys and went in earlier than usual.

The manager pulled me into his office instantly and asked me to be honest. I poured it all out, every last thought and experience I had suffered throughout the previous months. There were even tears, a reaction I am still grateful for to this day. He grabbed me and hugged me, sat me back down and told me whatever it would take from a personal or professional point of view, he wanted to help me. It turns out his assistant had spent around 15 years with similar struggles and listening to him speak I felt his hurt. I wasn’t alone, I had found a safe place.

Football has been my release from the dark cloud ever since. It still rains on me heavily from time to time and I’ve had my struggles since but I’ve found something that can help, even if not always. I’ll admit I’ve probably never performed to the level I once did, nor am I sure I have the drive or desire anymore but this sport has saved me on many occasions.

My happy place is crossing the white line and chasing a ball about with a gang of mates all fighting for the same thing. I assume a certain confidence with a ball at my feet that I don’t have in everyday life, I find it easy to leave my problems at the changing room door and lift the weight from my shoulders.

Within the dressing room I’ve began to find fellow sufferers, I’ve even opened up to a few of them and them to me. Now if you told me this four years ago, at the beginning of this journey, I’d have not even heard you for the white noise in my head. Sport is often frustrating, hurtful, and filled with anger but I have found a slice of goodness and I think many others could do the same.

I started out writing this to shed some light on a subject that I believe is still bubbling under the surface far and not being spoken about enough. Yes, I see the improvements being made, especially with a lot of big-name cases in recent years, and long may that continue. Although I’d rather it didn’t take a crisis for the likes of Aaron Lennon to shed some light on the dangers of mental health. Can we develop an environment where it’s acceptable to be open and honest? I certainly hope so, and I encourage anyone to speak; teammates and managers will be more supportive than you can imagine.


Aaron is a 26-year-old part time junior footballer and Celtic season ticket holder who recently made the leap from a keen 90 Minute Cynic listener to contributor. He's played for Ayr United and also alongside James Forrest in pro youth football for Celtic and often asks himself; where did it all go wrong?


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