The news of Gary Speed’s death today is as surprising as it is sad, with a true gentleman and Premier League great suddenly gone without a hint of a warning.
It is perhaps a bit of a cliche to say he was one of the last you would expect this of, but it really fits right now; never in his distinguished career has Speed been known for anything other than being a model professional, and it is alarming that there has, presumably, always been something lurking under the surface that he never felt comfortable sharing with anyone.
Close friends of his in the football world have spoken about him in recent times, and his appearance on Football Focus just yesterday when he seemed absolutely fine. As a sufferer of depression myself at points in my life, I’m surprised that Speed could continue to function so normally in a high pressure job in the public eye.
But perhaps the stigma of having depression that sadly still exists in the modern world, particularly perhaps in the traditionally tough and masculine environment of football, prevented Gary from feeling comfortable about speaking out; some of the ridicule Stan Collymore has received from his impressively open account of his own problems on Twitter would sadly justify that it seems.
Depression can be hard to understand or empathise with if you haven’t been through it – if someone is feeling low for no apparent reason it might seem like they need to ‘man up’ and get on with things, but it’s not that simple. It is an illness, not a character flaw. Just as with anorexia when a perfectly slim person can look in the mirror and see themselves as fat, a person earning a lot of money from playing football from a living with a perfectly pleasant life can see themselves as a failure with no hope of things improving. It is not unreasonable to look for help, and if any good can come from today’s tragedy it is that it might raise awareness in a game that is still stuck in the past on this important issue.
I am fortunate to have overcome my own problems as there is something of a history of it in my family, which meant it came to no surprise to my parents that I was affected by it at some point in my life. Some people won’t know anyone who has ever suffered any kind of mental illness, and for anyone reading this who might be going through something similar, as much as you feel like you are not worth the hassle or deserving of any help – you are, just as anyone with any illness is. It is not your fault. Talking about it with a therapist and taking medication is not cowardly and is an important step to take in the hope of getting better.
Speed perhaps gained a reputation of being the strong and silent type, and sadly when you’re in the public eye you feel you have to live up to a reputation like that, and I fear that pressure has perhaps led to him taking his own life, for something that needs to stop being characterized as weak.