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The Time to Change campaign needs politicians as well as sports stars to open up about depression

Posted on 15 January 2012 | 1:01pm

My last blog was about depression and sport. I make no apology for returning to the theme today, inspired by going on twitter to see how Ed Miliband’s interview with Andrew Marr was going down – mixed (I thought he did well) – and seeing that Dean Windass was trending.

I suspect a fair few twitterers may have struggled for immediate identification, but to football fans, he is very well-known indeed, both as a player (now retired) and as a blunt and enthustiastic match reporter on Sky Sports (now redundant).

He was trending, however, for an interview he gave to this morning’s People newspaper, in which he admits to being a depressive, and speaks of two recent suicide attempts. He talks of the difficulty he had from adapting to life after playing at the top; of the impact of the death of Gary Speed, who was the same age as him; of the death of his father; of the loss of his family; of his resorting to alcohol as an escape from depression, but the discovery known to so many that it just makes things worse.

I am usually quite good at spotting fellow depressives. There tends to be something in the eyes, the mannerisms, the walk, the timbre of the voice. I wasn’t totally surprised to hear Gary Speed had problems. I was surprised to hear that Dean Windass did. All of us need to be more alert to the possible suffering of others.

In The Happy Depressive, which is my latest attempt to bring these issues more into the centre of public and political debate, I have a little chapter on sport, mainly about the good it can do for well-being. But I also say… ‘as do so many others, I romanticize what it must be like to be at the top of football. Yet this world too has its share of suffering. The best book I read last year was A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng, the story of the German goalkeeper Robert Enke who took his own life after losing his battle with depression. To anyone wanting to understand the illness better, read it. And of course the world of football was shocked to its core recently when Wales manager Gary Speed, someone who was universally popular in the game, committed suicide. Problems of the mind are no respecters of wealth, race, profession or lifestyle.‘ That is a point Dean Windass makes today. To the outside world, he had everything. Inside, when depression struck, he felt he had nothing.

I hope that, as a result of going public, he will get the help and support he needs.  The reaction on twitter is almost universally supportive. As I have said before, I continue to get a fair bit of  flak from the media and sometimes members of the public about things I have said and done in relation to my political life. But on this issue – being open about mental health problems – I have found overwhelming support from both.

When The Times ran a story about The Happy Depressive, I was both surprised and chuffed to see it also made it the subject of an editorial headlined ‘Mental illness is the last taboo for Parliament.’

It pointed out that politicians are notoriously reluctant to be open about any mental health problems, suggested depression was as much a taboo for politicians today as homosexuality was in the 2oth century, and concluded: ‘… despite the government’s stated intention to repeal it, Section 141 of the Mental Health Act still requires MPs, if sectioned for more than six months to give up their seats for life. The sooner this stigmatising law goes, the sooner attititudes will start to change.’ That is absolutely right.

It is interesting that so many sports stars – Freddie Flintoff, Marcus Trescothick, Steve Harmison, Neil Fairborther, Neil Lennon, Frank Bruno, Vinnie Jones, Graham Dott, Barry McGuigan, Ricky Hatton to name a few from recent days – are prepared to be open, yet so few politicians are.

I have no desire to be judgemental on this, and it is always for an individual to decide how best to deal with these complex issues where the personal and the political collide. But I do think that every time someone like Dean Windass comes out and admits to depression, the easier it will be for others, and the likelier it will be that the country makes the right political decisions about dealing with mental health.

On Tuesday, Nick Clegg is hosting an event to celebrate the success so far of the Time to Change campaign aimed at changing attitudes towards mental illness. I have no idea whether any government ministers get depression, but the overall statistics would suggest it highly likely. I know as well as anyone how horrible the illness is. But I know also that the Time to Change campaign would get a huge boost if a serving leading politician were able to join the cause from the perspective of personal experience as well as political support.

Meanwhile, if Dean Windass is up for it, I think he would be a great ambassador for Time to Change too.

  • Paul

    footballers don’t have to stand for election against potentially underhamd opponents, esp if bipolar or schizophrenic.

  • sg

    Was there a reason that Section 141 wasn’t repealed when you were at the top of government?

    • Mary

      Was there a reason that Section 141 wasn’t repealed when you were at the top of government?

      Very good statement, +100500

  • Excellent.
    Curious how one can indeed have a sense and can sometimes identify a fellow depressive.
    As one can be disbarred from parliament for having been stopped by the mental health act (stop to action is somewhat at the heart of depression), it is surprising that those inparliament have not ironed out that wrinkle. Ditto being a school governor but that is my own experience.
    Curious too the resonse to the banking C.E.O. who has also been so reticent to be open re-his own health of late.
    I’m meant to be on my turbo trainer with my bike – Mind charity fundraising come the spring – which seems very distant here in the Pennines today.

  • Gilliebc

    ‘All of us need to be more alert to the possible suffering of others’

    I wouldn’t disagree with that for a moment AC.  But the problem is what to actually do about it when it is spotted?

    Like yourself AC I am also quite good at spotting a fellow depressive.  I’ve written before on your site about my two experiences of this and make no apologies for repeating it.

    The first time was about 15 years ago when I picked-up on the possible distress of a friend’s husband.  He was a typical Alpha male and very macho.  So I told myself I was imagining it.  Shortly afterwards he took his own life in a very unpleasant way taking 3 agonising days to die (Paraquet weed-killer).

    The second time was just over 3 years ago when I picked up the ‘vibes’  in an ex-colleague of my husband’s.  He was a cheerful sort of person a bit of a joker and an all round good bloke.  I even asked my husband if he thought that this man could or might be suffering from depression, my husband having worked alongside him (and others) for about 20 years.  My husband said he didn’t know, but thought it unlikey.  About 3 months later he too took his own life, albeit in a ‘Russian roulette’ sort of style.

    The point is what to do about it when it is spotted, given that a lot of people particularly men would probably deny it!  There are some people who can’t or won’t be helped imho and I don’t think the rest of us should feel guilty about that.  Ultimately we are all responsible for our own lives.

  • Ehtch

    One sign of someone in the sharp end of politics which could be an indicator of such is when they suddenly do something quite stupid – the usual one is drink and drive when totally bladdered, blow in the bag and all that. Drink is the usual sign, and I suppose you only have to go down to that bar in the H of C late at night to see who is struggling, one supposes. Anyway, Churchill always complained of the black dog following him everywhere, and it is said he really liked the pop. So where is the fine line?

  • Ehtch

    Yes, upstairs playing games seems to be like you have caught the pox in some institutions of no imagination. As for the art world, still or moving camera, the more bonkers you go, the more the agents in such field say “he/she must be working on something really interesting, to go to those depths, which we will see the light of day soon”. Maybe where the phrase “piss artist” might come from. Sport is a form of art, always thought so, but politics? – could be you know, if you look at it laterally, unlike our always look straight ahead, eyes set in concrete, unimaginative stuck in the ground tory friends.

  • Ehtch


    Ta-Ra the Arse, come again. Hell of a tidy win,

    Song! Alison, mmmm,

    what were we talking about again? ahem, cough, peswch. more tea vicar? stop showing yourself like that auntie, think of the draughts you’re getting, sorry vicar but we are right out of port – lager? Tescos own brand finest?

  • Ehtch

    Ed on Andrew Marr London living Beeb on yewerstubby here, in two parts, and Ed did well, but that is only what I think,

    And welsh politicians suggesting the North of England what to do. What has Westminster done for you laterly, you northerners should ask, let alone us welsh cornish and cumbrian and strathclyde and scottish borders brothers seperated by invasion in past times,

    Song/vid for old welsh spoken and sung in Glasgow/borderlands there,

  • Michele

    I daresay sportspeople as well as those in other ‘glam’ jobs have prejudice about their physical ageing working against them and feeding their downs.

    It’s not like that in politics where some longevity can / should equate to useful life experience. 

    There were first steps late last year towards repealing 141 after work by a HoL crossbencher, HoL is acting more and more like rebellious yoof; praise be.

    I don’t think it’s a straight up and down topic though; the reasons why one was sectioned need to be confidential but I doubt could remain so.

  • mark. chapman

    If Winston Churchill with his ‘black dog’ depression could lead victory in World War 2, what is it that those who compiled s.141 of the Mental Health Act were so knowledgeable about? They weren’t ‘knowledgeable’ in this area of course… clearly, that section (at least) must be flawed… it apparently presumes people cannot (sufficiently) recover and be relevant, valuable, cognitive etc in day-to-day and future-thinking rest-of-life. Ridiculous… the law an ass again.

  • Ehtch

    As a welshman, may I say, our welsh tory secretary, sold her house, a short few weeks before the announcment of this train going through the Chiltern tory play park. Link Gillian, you total tory cow,

    So there we go, that is the Minister looking after us, at the present moment, in Wales, you lot from Buckinghamshire realise. More perfect Joe 90 should be called. I say, as a taffy, enjoy english please,

  • Anonymous

    I thought Ed did quite well on Andrew Marr, and on John Humphrys and in both cases I thought the interviewers did well too.

    I am with Blair on this. People like Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband do not lose elections because of their personality and all that – its because of their economic policy.

    Working class people know that eu immigration costs them jobs and pay, they know that borrowing to spend is wrong (taxing to spend is relatively better), and they know that labour serves a different constituency than them, its moved from miners to students.

    These things override Ed’s really good ideas on responsible capitalism. How can an unreconstructed irresponsible party provide responsible capitalism.

    I believe if Ed agreed constitutional gdp-linked limits on spending and borrowing – he’d win this election. I believe that is what Brown and Blair would do in this circumstance.

    Or stick to borrow and spend, and lose.

  • Erik

    Another great post! I hope Dean Windass gets all the support he needs.

  • Ehtch

    A song for sportsman and people that liked to describe them as Halstatt btiton living celt now island living, recovering the feeling of life on our isle today,
    Love visiting Tirol in Austria/Italy, where celt HQ is as far as I am concerned,

  • Michele

    A bit late in to this blog, but having just been sent this I thought it was worth showing hardman Vinnie doeing another educational fing :

  • Ehtch

    South Bank, pushed through by thankfully a Labour government in the 1960’s, put to song brilliantly here, concrete and bluddey clay,
    yeh, move it

  • Ehtch

    Michele, how about this, northernfriends in modern talking,
    WOW, and I talked about New Order from Manch yesterday,
    Talk about at the sharp edge, or in touch. I can post music shit until the cows come fucking home

  • Ehtch

    Alastair, brilliant film available in full in parts on yootoob, Daughter of the Mind, starring the brilliant Ray Milland, from Neath, South Wales originally, and stunning Gene Tierney in one of her last major roles. Health of the mind explored. Could always try your local dvd rent shop if they have it, for better viewing?
    Click adjoined link for the next part.
    pt. 1