Sunday, 27 November 2011

Blog 23 - Gary Speed, depression and how people can help.

I'm writing this having just heard the terrible news about Wales manager Gary Speed committing suicide in the early hours of this morning aged just 42.

If there is one word that dominates the news reports and discussions it is shock. Every friend, colleague, pundit and fan seems dumbfounded by the news.

Gary Speed is a man everyone liked. With his good looks attracting a lot of female attention, as a young Leeds star he could easily have become a "Spice Boy" like so many others and allowed the lifestyle and money of a Premiership Footballer become more important to him than actually playing the game. But he didn't. He gave 100% week in-week out and served every club he played for with honour and commitment, and he was a man that every neutral fan had respect for as a result.

He seemed to have it all, a lovely family, financially untroubled, a successful playing career, and now a promising spell as manager of his country, the highest honour one can be given in football. He had it all. So why would he want to end it?

I don't know, because I'm not Gary Speed, but as someone who has suffered with depression and been to some very low places, I can certainly see how the seemingly perfect life could have become more of a prison than a paradise for someone with depression.

With everything Gary Speed had going for him it's clear that in life he has made some very good decisions. As a manager that's his job, and as a player it was one of his strengths. So when you spend all day every day making good decisions in your professional life and in your personal life, what happens when you find that the right move still leaves you feeling hollow and empty every time?

This is what depression does. It strips the joy away from everyday life. It makes the positive seem bland and uninspiring (at best). So if the right moves make you feel like shit, what's the alternative? Deliberately make the wrong moves? Run away? Quit and start again from scratch so you can do it all again? When you are a father, a husband and someone shouldering the burden of a nations footballing hopes it isn't that simple. If you make the wrong decisions those around you suffer. You can't and won't run away from those you love, no matter how much you may want to be alone. And you can't quit as manager of a national football team because all you want is some peace and you'll be hounded by the press forever and a day. You're trapped. You're on a treadmill that you can't get off of. Logically the best thing you can do is just to carry on as normal but when every fibre of your body is screaming for rest and change, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Speed's very success could have been his biggest downfall.

Gary Speed, due to his fame and position, has today become a symbol of all that's hidden about depression, but his situation is replicated by normal, everyday people every single day of the year. The challenges are different, but the reasoning will usually be the same. People who feel desperately unhappy, but who feel powerless to change their situation. I feel like this regularly to varying degrees, but have never, even at my lowest point, acted on it. However given how prevelant depression is, it's amazing that statistically more people don't.

So how can we stop this happening to the next Gary Speed? The next person who is backed into a corner with only one way out? The answer, however unhelpful, is that you can't. Depression is an illness and whilst it varies greatly in seriousness and symptom, there is no cure. You may feel better for a while, you may consider yourself "cured" even, but once a person suffers from depression it will always be part of them. Something you always have to remain aware of. And people will always be pain and a lot will kill themselves. There's no magic formula.

The one area that can be addressed is that of changing attitudes towards people with depression. When I was first diagnosed with depression my first reaction was to keep it to myself. I was ashamed by what seemed like a terrible weakness for a bloke in his early twenties to be suffering from. I thought it was only something for people who had been through a massive trauma in their life, and that my feelings were fraudulent. Surely I was just being a wimp? My sunconscious was sulking about something and wanted to hide away from the real world for a while like a child. It took me a long time and a lot of lost sleep and mental strain to acknowledge the validity of my condition.

Imagine how much more difficult it is to accept for someone who has never experienced depression. If your only contact with depression is that someone at work buggers off on full pay for months at a time with it whilst you have to come in every day and pick up their slack, then your opinion of it is not going to be good. The invisible disease that anybody can claim to have.

I think as a society, we do accept that some people suffer from mental illness, but that we have all experienced one or two people who claim to have depression but seem to be fine. Depression is regarded with the same skepticism as ADHD. Some kids may genuinely need meds, but every naughty kid at school these days gets told he has some vague disease because it's easier for parents to blame illness rather than a lack of parenting. Hence, for every 10 people who claim to have depression, we assume 7 or 8 are just making excuses. As someone with depression, you feel this skepticism acutely, often because you still feel this way yourself to a large extent.

If I found coming to terms with depression hard, imagine what Gary Speed had to deal with. Football is an old-school male community, with embedded attitudes when it comes to health. The team is everything. The individual must put the team before himself. He must play through the pain barrier, fight to his last breath, leave everything personal in the dressing room and live for the moment with his teammates. A national football manager who quits because of depression? Unthinkable. A large proportion of the country, and more importantly the footballing community would see it as tantamount to treason. You don't quit a job like that. You're honoured to have been asked in the first place you ungrateful sod. And depression? Well just cheer up a bit, there's nothing wrong with you. I doubt very much that Gary Speed told many people in the game about his illness, which would have added to the pressure he was already feeling.

I can only hope that Gary Speed's tragedy can change this attitude. That people see a model professional and a successful man and now understand that one man's perfect life can be another man's prison cell, and that depression is a potentially lethal illness and not a weak persons laziness. And I hope that the next Gary Speed feels like they can ask for help, or a way out, and that more people will now understand rather than turn on them in ignorance.

I feel for his family and friends, but most of all I feel for him, and the incredible pain he must have been feeling.

RIP Gary Speed.