Gary Speed suicide provokes tough questions

As the much-loved Wales manager is found dead, many are shocked that an apparently happy man could take his own life. A dark side to the privileged world of football is emerging.

On Saturday afternoon, Gary Speed seemed in bright spirits, talking animatedly on BBC1’s Football Focus about how his young sons were progressing with their own budding football skills.

Early on Sunday morning, his wife Louise found him dead in their Cheshire home. He had apparently taken his own life.

As news of his death broke, tributes from the football world started pouring in. The overwhelming feeling was one of shock. Michael Owen tweeted that he felt ‘numb’, while former team-mate Robbie Savage responded simply: ‘Why! Why! Why!... He’s left two gorgeous kids behind and a beautiful wife. He had everything.’

This expresses perfectly the sense of disbelief that so many people felt on hearing of Speed’s apparent suicide: it can seem unfathomable that a man who earned excellent money, in a job that allowed him to indulge his passion for sport, with a close family and supportive friends, should fall into such despair. Speed’s case is particularly surprising as he showed no outward signs of depression.

However, his death is not without precedent. German footballer Robert Enke committed suicide in 2009; Sunderland goalkeeper Tim Carter hanged himself in 2008, while recently German Bundesliga referee Babak Rafati attempted suicide just before he was due to take to the pitch. It seems that depression among sportspeople is more common than one might think.

Young men are particularly at risk from suicide – three to four times more likely to kill themselves than women – and football is a very male-dominated industry. While some celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones have tried to challenge the stigma attached to mental illness by talking openly about their personal experience of depression or bipolar disorder, footballers are more likely to suffer in macho silence than to seek help.

Stiff upper lip

There is a reluctance in parts of society to be open about mental illnesses. Some people feel that confessing to mental health problems is a sign of weakness; that suffering from depression or other conditions is something of which to be ashamed. There is a persistent idea that people should keep their problems to themselves and show, as the old British expression goes, a ‘stiff upper lip.’

But psychiatrists warn that bottling up emotional problems is the worst possible course of action. When sufferers of depression do not seek help, they can become introverted and unable to see their problems from an outside perspective. We are social creatures, they say, and we should share our feelings with family and friends and get the support that so many of us will one day need.

You Decide

  1. Do you think that men find it harder to talk about their feelings than women?
  2. Are celebrities really helping the public by sharing their experiences of depression? Some say that it breaks the taboo associated with mental illness, while others think that it is self-pitying. What do you think?

Activities

  1. Think of a time when you felt sad or lonely. Write a letter to your past self detailing all the positive aspects of being you.
  2. Research a mental illness, its symptoms and treatments, and present it to the class.

Some People Say...

“People who earn £20,000 a week have nothing to be depressed about.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So movie star Catherine Zeta-Jones is bipolar. What does that mean?
She suffers from bipolar II disorder, which is when someone suffers at least one depressive episode, and at least one ‘hypomanic’ episode. This means that one may feel over-elated or energetic, but not quite ‘manic’, and then very down.
Is that dangerous?
Yes, potentially. People with bipolar II have the highest suicide risk of all those on the bipolar spectrum.
Have many famous people come out as being ‘bipolar’?
Lots, which suggests that attitudes to mental illness may be shifting. Celebrities such as Russell Brand and David Walliams have admitted suffering from the disorder, while we know that Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Florence Nightingale and Vincent van Gogh are very likely to have been sufferers.

Word Watch

Unfathomable
A fathom is a unit of measurement used specifically for measuring the depth of water. To fathom means ‘to get to the bottom of’, so to be ‘unfathomable’ means ‘incomprehensible’.
Bundesliga
The highest football league in Germany – equivalent to the UK’s Premier League.
Stigma
From the ancient Greek word stigma, meaning ‘mark’. It refers to feelings of discomfort or dislike that some people may have towards others who are different from the norm in some way. You could say that there was a social stigma to being blind, or in a wheelchair.
Bipolar
Formerly known as manic depression, this word can refer to several disorders on the ‘bipolar spectrum’, a range of mental illnesses that make those who suffer from them switch between being extremely positive and euphoric and being very depressed and listless.
Macho
The adjective form of ‘machismo’, a Spanish word that describes excessive displays of masculinity. ‘Macho’ men may try to appear tough or fierce, sometimes even sexist or aggressive.
So many of us
It is estimated that one in four people will suffer from depression at some point in their lives.

Subjects

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