‘Boys don’t cry’ – Will the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation help men open up?

Clarke Carlisle

Clarke Carlisle

The Guardian newspaper reported today that former star of the Premier League, Clarke Carlisle, has said he felt “no shame” about his suicide attempt in December 2014, when he was ‘incredibly unwell’. The former Burnley and Leeds United  footballer  stepped in front of a 12-ton lorry on the A64 near York and was seriously injured.

Isn’t it strange, how a high-profile male sports personality needs to say that he does not feel ashamed of his attempt to take his own life? Why should it be shameful? Carlisle was at The Oval cricket ground, alongside Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, to help launch a new programme to tackle the stigma of mental health issues in sport.  The Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation has already received endorsement from The Football Association, the Rugby Football Union, the Lawn Tennis Association and the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Carlisle is becoming a very high-profile advocate of the need for sports stars – particularly male stars in a variety of sports – to open up about the stresses of life at the top and the need for support at times of crisis. Many find it particularly difficult at retirement from sport, especially if their career has been cut short by injury.

““People are very delicate stepping around it – there’s no shame invested in it for me….I stand here today with a very different perspective of what it means to be alive in this world. There’s a great expectation that once you come out of a psychiatric hospital you’re cured. You’re not cured – you just have more tools, a greater awareness of self and a greater understanding of how to manage your illness and that’s exactly where I’m at. ….I’m managing my illness on a daily basis and I can tell you today I’m very well.”

The Guardian gives figures from the Professional Players Federation which offers counselling to footballers. It has seen a significant increase in need over the past three years, supporting 143 current and former sports stars last year.

Will this charter make any difference though? Will young people, particularly young men, feel better able to express their mental health needs when sports personalities are open about their struggles? Certainly, taking part in sport can have a positive impact on physical and mental health but the huge financial rewards and pressure involved in remaining at the top of any game can make anyone vulnerable. Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, known for his love of a party and apparently bullish attitude to life surprised many when he came out as suffering with depression, and the number of cricketers experiencing mental health issues has doubled in the past couple of years.

BCMJ_53Vol10_suicide_depressed_manSuicide in men has been described by the British Medical Journal as a “silent epidemic”; the lack of public awareness and the high incidence amongst men requiring urgent action. It is not only theworld of sport that stigmatises mental health issues, but it surely has a significant role to play in the challenges men face. We will watch to see whether the Charter is more than a piece of paper and a media opportunity for politicians who have neglected mental health service provision over the past five years and are only now recognising how deep-rooted the issues are.

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