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.