I would imagine that most people who follow football, pretty much all of Wales, and most people who know of him, have been deeply saddened today by the death of Gary Speed – but also incredibly shocked that someone who appeared to have so much would take their own life. It is still far too early to know any possible reasons for it, but the big question on the mind of many people is ‘why?’
However, it also links to a story in the press at the weekend which some people may not have seen – that of Stan Collymore, an ex-footballer and now successful radio commentator/talkshow host who has battled with depression for many years and who has written about the episode of depression that he is currently going through. It was when Collymore couldn’t play because of depression that his then manager, John Gregory, famously said ‘he is earning 20k per week to play football – what has he got to be depressed about?’. I’m sure John Gregory regrets those comments now, but it was certainly a prevalent attitude at the time (1999) that people with fame/fortume/success couldn’t possibly suffer from depression as they had everything they needed to ‘buy’ happiness.
I wonder if that attitude has really changed that much – yes, we know far more about it and the stigma is very slowly being eroded (whether it ever will be completely and whether it eroded at all for some people is another matter). However, even in 2006 Marcus Trescothick was forced to withdraw from the England cricket team on a tour of India because of depression, and this led some people to question his ‘mental toughness to compete’ (Trescothick has written a fascinating book on the topic, and this article gives a good insight into it http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/jun/21/marcus-trescothick-interview).
It is as if we find it hard to equate successful people with depression or the feelings of despair that can lead to suicide – after all, what have they got to worry about compared to the rest of us?
In contrast, it is only too easy for us to use futility explanations to explain suicide at the other end of the spectrum. I live in the Bridgend valleys and over the last few years we have had a spate of suicides that have often hit the national news. These seem far more explainable – young, living in an economically disadvantaged area, bleak prospects – even if those things aren’t true of the individuals involved, it fits better with our schemas of the type of person who would think about committing suicide.
But it doesn’t work like that – yes, people in those sorts of situations are more likely to feel the pressures and possibly see suicide as a way out, but it doesn’t mean that there is a cause and effect link with wealth and success. The stresses of our jobs and lives, the need to love and have this reciprocated, these things don’t necessarily come with a pricetag attached. And when it comes to depression – the brain’s chemicals have no notion of the concepts of fame and fortune, they don’t care, they will plunge that person into a pit of despair regardless of how famous they are.
What can psychology/counselling/ pharmacology etc., do about all of this? It is actually quite a tricky question – we have to educate society on these issues without falling into the trap of making it look as if we are mollycoddling all and sundry and trying to pretend the world can be a perfect place (I know quite a few people who have a view of psychology and counselling as being this); we have to recognise the treatments required for different things, whether this be psychological or pharmacological, and apply them properly instead of trying a one-size-fits-all regime of whatever the latest fad is. Counselling for those who need it, pharmacology for those who need it.
Most of all, we need to end the stigma of asking for help – whether it be help from the soul-destroying darkness of depression, or help when someone says ‘things are going wrong and I can’t see a way out other than this’. We need to show that it isn’t a ‘mental weakness’; they didn’t make them ‘tougher in the old days’; it doesn’t make you ‘less of a man’ (from the male perspective there).
When you need help you need help – and that is largely irrespective of money, fame, success, or pretty much anything else.