IN THE away dressing-room at Ibrox after a typically tumultuous Old Firm game which had just been won by Celtic, you might imagine that Neil Lennon would have chief among those who didn’t want the ecstatic feeling to end. But the manager yesterday recalled how as a player he sat on his own desperately wishing he was somewhere else – a victim of depression.
“We’d just won 2-0 and the place was euphoric,” said Lennon, whose moods could be so black that sometimes he was unable to remember anything of the matches in which he’d played. “I just sat in the corner. I just wanted to go home, turn out the lights and not speak to anyone.”
Lennon opened up about his battle with depression in a film called Mind Games: Mental Health in Scottish Football which was given its first screening in Glasgow. He was the most high-profile participant but not the only one. Others who spoke just as well, and just as movingly, included Ian Murray and Robbie Neilson, two former Edinburgh derby combatants who struggled to cope with being ex-players who could no longer hear the roar of the crowd. And Iain Russell of Queen of the South was brave enough to not only appear in the film as a victim of depression still playing football but to face questions at the launch about a condition which its sufferers, as professional sportsmen, still feel inhibited about discussing because of a sense that some will think that with all their apparent privilege they don’t deserve to have mental health problems.
The film was introduced by Jack Ross of PFA Scotland who produced it with the Scottish Association for Mental Health and the “See Me” campaign to end mental health stigma. He said football was a “fantastic profession and one to cherish” but with Scotland boasting 1000 pro-footballers and one in four people expected to suffer mental health issues at some time in their lives, players could not be considered immune.
Obviously Russell hasn’t been. Speaking about his lowest ebb, the 31-year-old striker said: “I didn’t want to get up in the morning. Sometimes I didn’t even want to wake up.” Having taken part in the film he was given the chance to duck out of further exposure at the launch but wanted to do his bit to increase awareness and understanding. “The main reason I’m here is to help anybody out there. I have played with boys and I’m still playing with boys who are struggling.”
Russell didn’t make it as a 16-year-old at Rangers and was then let go by Motherwell. “I felt as if I’d let my family down,” he recalled. But he went part-time and got happy, only for depression to properly take a grip when he returned to full-time football with Livingston. He felt “pressure and stress” to the extent he didn’t want to play. “My doctor prescribed me anti-depressants but that was when the lies started. I said I was taking them but I wasn’t. When I came home from football I hid in the toilet, not wanting to speak to my wife. I stopped eating and ended up having to take six weeks off because I got a viral infection and became quite ill.”
Although this isn’t the unforgiving, unreconstructed 1970s anymore, football is still a macho environment – how had team-mates reacted to his condition? “They take the mickey, but in a good way!”
Tony Higgins, Scottish rep of international players’ union FIFPro, was a 1970s footballer with Hibernian and a team-mate of Erich Schaedler, who took his own life at just 36. He said yesterday: “It would have been an acknowledgement of weakness to have admitted you suffered from depression, that you couldn’t cope, in those bad old days. The mentality of the dressing-room was very macho. There are many theories about my old colleague Erich. He was either very high or very quiet, he seemed to oscillate between the two. The game then wouldn’t have recognised [depression]. Nobody would have told the rest of the players [about a suffering team-mate]. You would have seen that player being isolated. Iain talks about the camaraderie of the dressing-room and it recognising what he’s dealing with. That’s why what he and others are doing [with this film] is so important.”
Murray spoke with old Hearts rival Neilson about the post-football comedown. “People want to talk to footballers, they ask for their autographs, and then suddenly that stops,” said Murray. Neilson said no longer playing on Saturdays, with the radio broadcasting games and desperately wishing he still was, made him difficult for his family to be around.
Lennon mentioned Stan Collymore’s battle with depression and how like many at the time he was ignorant of the condition. “My reaction was to ask what he had to be depressed about.” Lennon also recalled what should have felt like his own peak as a player. “Leicester City had just won the League Cup and I had everything I wanted – the money, the house, the lifestyle. But one morning I woke up and thought: ‘Something’s not right here.’” He got better through taking anti-depressants.
Lennon called for more medical help for players with mental health issues. “It can make somebody’s life better, never mind their career,” he said. Football was “macho-dominated” where those with problems were still reluctant to admit them. At Celtic he kept a careful watch on younger players. “My door is always open to them. Once you’ve experienced [depression] you can help by telling them it’ll be all right.”