When a group of footballers met up recently to talk about their mate Chris Mitchell, the question they were all asking themselves was whether there was more they could have done to identify warning signs and get him the help he had so obviously needed.
It isn’t the first time each of them had gone over things in their minds and it probably won’t be the last but they hope that moves being taken in their friend’s name will prevent others having to do the same in the future.
Mitchell, the former Livingston, Falkirk, Ayr United, Bradford City, Queen of the South and Clyde full-back, was just 27 when he took his own life at the start of May 2016. Just three months after he walked away from the game that had been his life until then, he decided that life wasn’t worth living.
His family have spoken of the struggles the Scotland Under-21 international faced during that transitional period as he tried to adapt to a full-time career outwith the game he loved. He was dogged by depression and anxiety but, in front of friends he was the same “Mitch” they had known, some of them for more than a decade.
They had shared a dressing room, laughed, played and partied together. They had donned the Scotland shirt and dreamt together and they had lost but never once had he let the mask slip, never had he spoken of any mental health difficulties.
But when Dundee United’s Tam Scobbie met up with Scott Arfield, Mark Stewart, Derek Lyle, Chris Higgins, and Paul Sludden to film a series of interviews to mark the partnership between the SPFL Trust and the Chris Mitchell Foundation, which is aimed at ensuring at least two people at every SPFL club are trained in mental health awareness within the next couple of months, it was difficult not to use hindsight as a microscope to study what they may have missed.
“I’d known Mitch since we were 16 and we were YTS boys at Falkirk together,” said Scobbie. “We did everything together, and we were away with Scotland together so there were a lot of good times. At that age we all wanted the same thing, we were all just dreaming and hoping we could make it.
“Looking back, you never knew when Mitch was in a bad mood or if he was having a bad day because he was always the life and soul of the dressing room. You thought: ‘this is a guy who pretty much loves everything that he does’, so to find out how much he had been struggling was something me and the other boys spoke about. None of us picked up on it and it is something we all feel we should have. But his character didn’t seem to change from the first day we knew him.
“Even if he had a bad training session or made a mistake, he would still get on with it and try to laugh everything off. That’s the kind of guy he was. His mood was infectious and that helped me because when I was younger, I was a bit stuck up and really driven and he showed me that you sometimes have to step away from it and can’t keep thinking about football 24/7. He loved life and he loved football.”
But the struggles swirled beneath the surface and while he wished he had opened up, Scobbie can understand why Mitchell did not feel that the dressing room was the right environment.
“I think it is like any team, no-one wants to be seen as the weak link. It is hard to open up in a dressing room because it is quite a macho kind of place and I really wish Mitch had found a way to speak to us – because we would have been there for him – football is a competitive world and sometimes people have their own worries and you think you just have to get on with it yourself.”
The popular perception is that a football career shields players from “real life” but it does come with its own pressures and strains.
“The biggest one is going out every Saturday in front of thousands of people knowing that every mistake will be seen and it could be costly. You know all those people are depending on you. So that is pressure, and there is also the mental struggle if you are injured for a long time, if you are dropped from the team or maybe your contract is up and you don’t know if you will get a new one. I’ve had hard times. I have been through relegations, cup defeats, injuries and spells when things aren’t going well but players don’t really talk to each other about that. Some will go home and talk about it with their partner or their family but we probably should talk to others in the game because they understand what we are going through.”
A recent PFA Scotland survey, consulting clubs throughout the country, found that 64 per cent of respondents said that either they or a team-mate had experience of mental health issues, with almost 7 per cent identified as having significant issues.
So far, thanks to the Chris Mitchell Foundation and the SPFL Trust, 106 people from Scottish football clubs have participated in the mental health first aid training programme, with individuals trained to spot warning signs and help point those in need towards the best help without there being any stigma attached, and Scobbie hopes that will help those in the game as well as those looking ahead to a future beyond it.
“The PFA have tried to help players prepare for life after they stop playing, through training courses, whether that is in IT or in coaching or whatever, but I think even more could be done because this is all most of us have known since we were kids and I don’t want others to go through what Mitch did.”
The SPFL Trust and the Chris Mitchell Foundation work together to provide mental health first aid training to football clubs in Scotland. The organisations are holding a joint charity golf day at The Carrick by Loch Lomond on 23 May. For more information visit spfltrust.org.uk