On 22 December 2014, former footballer and Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chairman Clarke Carlisle attempted to take his own life. Carlisle has since been an advocate for footballers’ rights for many years, as well as a spokesperson for mental health and other issues in the game. He even presented a documentary in 2013 for BBC 3, entitled Football’s Suicide Secret.
A strong figure within the football community, it was shocking to hear that he had been quietly suffering in the shadows of the game. Carlisle was about to become another forgotten victim of football, which has seen the loss of great players such as Gary Speed, Robert Enke, and Justin Fashanu to suicide.
His thankfully failed attempt reignited the former player’s efforts to gain support for an issue that is not just present within football but across all sports. His courage and bravery has been inspiring and he himself has stated that he has “no shame” in discussing what happened. On 6 October Carlisle spoke to the BBC about the lack of support for mental health in football, boxing, and American football, compared to rugby league and cricket which are beginning to invest and finally “acknowledging it exists”.
There are 65 official reports of association footballers who have committed suicide, and hundreds more incidents of depression and addiction. Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic was formed in 2000 and has already helped many athletes who are suffering. However, that help comes at a high price. Very few initiatives and policies exist within sporting governing bodies that can provide athletes the support they need. It is not just football where the epidemic continues.
American football’s concussion crisis has been gaining momentum and in the last few years there were several incidents of suicide amongst high school and college players who all had been suffering from regular concussions. The National Football League (NFL) in the United States, like the Football Association (FA) in Britain, has avoided the subject but fans and the media are forcing the leagues to finally intervene.
Fans often fail to realise the pressures that athletes face under the constant spotlight and scrutiny of the world. It is all too easy to idolise our sporting heroes whilst also forgetting they are men and women just like us.
I had the pleasure of working with Clarke in the summer while he was a pundit for Absolute Radio’s Rock’n’Roll Football Show. Clarke arrived early for his call time and proceeded to spend two hours playing the computer game Football Manager. As a Queen Park Rangers fan I used to idolise him as an incredible centre-back who would give everything for his team and I remember the heartbreak of the Play-Off Final in 2003, something Carlisle says plagues him constantly.
The immersive nature of an athlete’s career can be their greatest downfall. When football is the only life a person has known they cannot prepare for life without it. In his recent interview he admitted how financial pressures, retirement, and loss of a punditry role all led to his depression.
It is Clarke’s openness that will help break this continued taboo amongst the global football world. It is stated that one-in-four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives, and the sporting idols of our society aren’t immune to this.
The Sport and Recreation Alliance has created the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation, alongside the charity Mind and the Professional Players Federation. The charter hopes to use the combined power of all the national governing bodies to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health problems. It is only by acknowledging mental health as a serious issue that more athletes can be prevented from suffering in silence.