Sports have the ability to transcend normality. Athletes understand this. In fact it is part of the reason they dedicate their entire lives to the pursuit of sporting achievement.
That feeling of performing in front of thousands, millions, billions in some cases, of onlookers is unlike any other. The stresses and strains that go with it are numerous, and as intense as they are draining and demanding. Constantly under observation, your every move analysed; you become a statistic, a phenomenon or a failure instead of a human being. In a way it must be a very surreal experience. Listening to the world talk about you and your actions, while also trying to live your own life.
So, with that in mind, imagine what it must be like when this is all taken away. Because that is what happens to 99% of all athletes before they even reach middle age. We should probably use the word ‘career’ a bit more sparingly with athletes. Their careers last somewhere between 10-15 years before their time is up.
Of the 800 retired athletes that the Professional Players’ Federation asked, over 400 said that they have concerns about their mental or emotional wellbeing since retirement. That is over 50%.
Suicide is the single biggest killer of young men aged 18-31 in the UK every year. Not cars, not murders, not cancer: mental illness. In the USA, men die by suicide 3.53 times more often than women. That is a staggering statistic. As men, we carry with us a macho image which we are expected to uphold. Yet in reality, we are struggling with crippling mental illness.
And the reason for this is silence. There is without doubt a stigma about mental health and mental illness. We are terrified that people will treat us differently, and won’t take us seriously, if they know that we are struggling with mental illness. We don’t want to admit that we might be struggling with our identity, or that we feel we are not living up to the image that we think we should be. But the truth is, the majority of us are experiencing or have experienced mental health issues at one point in our lives. If over 50% of retired athletes are having mental health issues, imagine how many of us in other facets of life are having them at any one time.
The most important thing to take away from this post is that there is no shame in mental illness or mental health issues.
It doesn’t mean that you are crazy, it doesn’t mean that you are not yourself, it doesn’t make you any less of a man in any way whatsoever. Like the flu, mental illness is exactly that, an illness. We can’t control when we get it, but it is always treatable. The fact that it can’t be seen makes it harder to deal with, but it can and will be dealt with given the right treatment.
I had a good friend who very sadly took his own life aged 21; in fact, I would think many of you reading this might also know someone or have a friend of a friend who has done the same. James Wentworth Stanley was a fantastic human being. Intelligent, handsome, funny, athletic; he literally had it all. And yet he took his own life as a young man. His parents, Clare and Nick, started the James Wentworth Stanley Memorial Foundation in his memory, a charity dedicated to spreading the awareness of mental health issues. After 11 years of quite literally non-stop work, they finally opened James’ Place (http://jwsmf.org/james-place/) this year. As you will see from the link, James’ Place is the first “non-clinical centre for men experiencing suicidal crisis” in the UK. It is a beautiful townhouse, lovingly converted into a homely, comfortable environment, where young men can go for help.
I wanted to highlight James’ Place in particular because this is and will be the future of mental health.
This signifies the beginning of the end of the “man up and get over it” era, and the dawn of a new era dedicated to tackling something that has become the biggest silent threat to the lives of young men.
If you are reading this, spread the word. The more we talk about mental illness, the more we reduce the anxiety and stigma surrounding it, and the more lives we will save in doing so.
For anyone experiencing any mental health issues, just remember, there is so much help and love and support for you, and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Talk to someone today.