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The Avoidable Tragedy of Suicide in Football

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"I have cried every day for two years. I took an overdose and, when that didn't work, I tried to hang myself." Words which alarm in both their tragic content and disarming honesty. More surprising than the words themselves though is the source; former footballer, Dean Windass.

Giving in an interview with a Sunday paper this weekend, the former Hull, Bradford and Aberdeen striker spoke incredibly frankly about his dual attempts at suicide, the latter coming as recently as a fortnight ago. Beset by financial woes and personal crises (his 18-year marriage recently came to a close, and he had been struggling to deal with the death of his father), Windass tried to take his own life; he has described his admission of this as a plea for help, after claiming he'd received no assistance from the Professional Footballers' Association.

Windass's revelations have come after a shocking period for mental health in the sport. In late-2009, German goalkeeper Robert Enke died after jumping in front of a train, following a lengthy fight with depression stemming from the death of his young daughter three years earlier. A year later, 24-year-old Dale Roberts, a Rushden and Diamonds player, hung himself after finding out that his girlfriend had been having an affair with a teammate. And, of course, last year, Wales manager Gary Speed killed himself, in circumstances that remain shrouded in mystery, albeit accompanied by a rumour mill with which I shan't engage in this article.

It would be wrong to seek to attribute a single cause to these four unique and tragic instances; each man would have had his own reasons for his decisions. Yet all are common in the reactions they drew from the wider world; complete and utter shock, questioning how such strong men could possibly be brought to carry out these actions. And therein lies the problem. In a world in which professional footballers have become even further distanced from regular people, the sporting community seems to be exclusively focussed on the physical health of its participants, with little regard for their personal lives and mental health.

Similarly, as football becomes increasingly commercialised, supporters become further distanced from those they cheer on; we don't expect them to react like this. Fans are conditioned to see 'the footballer' as a disconnected and dispassionate multi-millionaire. Players are conditioned to revel in this role, and be embodiments of masculinity, eschewing emotional engagement in favour of being harder and stronger. Similarly, the laddish environs of the training ground are far from conducive to emotional expression; admitting to something like depression or personal turmoil can be construed as a sign of weakness, to be picked up on by teammates or the media, which then can translate into abuse by rival fans

For example, after the papers picked up the story that former Scotland goalkeeper Andy Goram had a mild form of schizophrenia, fans around the country gleefully chanted 'Two Andy Gorams, there's only two Andy Gorams'; this song, mocking a man for his mental illness has since become the title of a book about 'the funniest football songs ever'. Classy.

Fans often forget that behind the player on the pitch there is a man, of whom often intolerably high pressures can be demanded. Footballers can often make for particularly unsympathetic figures, but many need our sympathy. More than this, they need assistance. The PFA responded to Speed's death by issuing a pamphlet to all of its members outlining means of accessing help for players struggling to cope with the pressures of the sport. Actions like this should continue, and prevent more promising lives being cut tragically short.

The PFA has an obligation to further reach out and penetrate a culture that has been created by fans and players alike which, discourages honest emotional dialogue and instead asks for footballers to shroud themselves in a false veneer of invincibility. Dean Windass has asked for help; hopefully he will be given it, and to many more like him, to as far as possible prevent such tragedies from occurring again.

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