Frank Bruno Helped Change How Mental Health Is Spoken About In Sport. Where's The Conversation Now?

Athletes speak candidly, some for the first time, about mental illness, struggles and pressures in and outside the sporting arena.

It’s been 17 years since the words ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’ were plastered across The Sun’s front page. It was 2003 and boxer Frank Bruno had just been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. He was there to get help, but the red top showed little empathy or sensitivity in the way it covered the story.

Mental health charity Sane was one of the first to condemn the paper. Marjorie Wallace, the charity’s chief executive, said it was an “insult” to Bruno and “damaging to the many thousands of people who endure mental illness”. And the backlash erupted so quickly that later editions of the paper carried the amended headline, “Sad Bruno In Mental Home”.

But the damage had been done. It was yet another blow for the sports star, who had retired from boxing in 1996 and was going through one of the toughest periods of his life, navigating grief and divorce, alongside poor mental health.

Looking back, Bruno tells HuffPost UK: “The public now seem to have a better understanding. It used to be the case, in my situation, where people would cross the road to avoid me, especially after my section in 2003.

“I used to hear people say: ‘There goes that nutter.’”

Frank Bruno
Frank Bruno

The discourse around mental health has changed hugely since then, with the new-found honesty of high-profile sports stars, including Bruno, playing a part.

Bruno started speaking to the media about his mental health issues after he was sectioned again in 2012. Unhappy about the way he was treated in hospital and the medication he was put on, he was persuaded by his agent Dave Davies to speak out “on behalf of the silent thousands who go through the same treatments, but don’t have a voice”.

Now 58, Bruno says he was “wary” of opening up – understandably, given past press coverage – but spoke to the Mirror in what was a landmark moment, he believes, for conversations and media coverage surrounding mental health.

The Sun's front pages when the paper reported on Frank Bruno being sectioned in 2003.
The Sun's front pages when the paper reported on Frank Bruno being sectioned in 2003.

Since then, we’ve seen mental health become a priority for sports associations across the board – from the FA to Rugby League to the Professional Cricketers Association, and understanding of mental health and mental illness within the sports industry and among the wider public growing, too. You only need to look at the thousands of people sharing their own experiences of poor mental health in blogs, tweets and social media posts and videos over the past decade to see just how much the conversation has changed.

Today, HuffPost UK launches its mental health series, Head In The Game, in which athletes across a variety of disciplines speak candidly about their mental wellbeing – from occasional periods of poor mental health to ongoing, sometimes debilitating, struggles with mental illness. They also share coping mechanisms and the support they’ve turned to during their lowest points.

Their stories – and the emotions they’ve shared with us – will be relatable to many, whether or not you play or watch sport yourself. Most interviewees touch on pressures particular to their disciplines, but there are factors at play – both personal and work-related – that build up in all our lives. It’s a reminder that these people are human, like the rest of us – and nobody is unbreakable.

Head In The Game interviewees: (top, left to right) Frank Bruno, Jordanne Whiley, Becky Downie, Elise Christie, Andrew Strauss; (bottom, left to right) Rebecca Adlington, Liam Broady, Eniola Aluko, Marcus Trescothick, Jo Pavey.
Head In The Game interviewees: (top, left to right) Frank Bruno, Jordanne Whiley, Becky Downie, Elise Christie, Andrew Strauss; (bottom, left to right) Rebecca Adlington, Liam Broady, Eniola Aluko, Marcus Trescothick, Jo Pavey.

Flash back to even a decade ago and it would have been a struggle to find so many sports people willing to open up about their mental health in the press.

In 2008, Marcus Trescothick was the first high-profile active cricketer to go public with his depression and anxiety, an experience he spoke about in his book, Coming Back To Me. And while reaction to his honesty was positive – “we’ve had thousands of people say it’s impactful,” the retired cricketer tells HuffPost UK – the reason behind why he felt he had to tell people the truth is telling of where the conversation around mental health was back then.

“I was constantly going around in circles, speaking to journalists and they were asking what was wrong”

- Marcus Trescothick

“There were a couple of parts to that,” Trescothick says ahead of his Head in the Game interview. “I needed to tell people my own story. I needed to right a few wrongs that had been written about me in various media outlets. I needed to tell the truth, and I needed to not be hiding away from it anymore.

“Because I was constantly going around in circles, speaking to journalists, and they were asking what was wrong, and I was saying ‘this, that and the other’. And I could never be honest to them because I couldn’t be honest to myself. I needed to almost lay it bare, and let it all out, just so we could move on.”

He was “sick and tired” of trying to find a way to get people off his back and sharing his truth was a huge weight off his shoulders. “It was the best thing I could do really,” he reflects. “It was enlightening. People could see exactly what was happening, I had nothing to hide anymore. It was a worry out of my mind.”

People simply didn’t talk about these things then – especially not in sport. As Guardian journalist Vic Marks wrote at the time: “The sporting world, more than any other, is unsympathetic to those who show signs of weakness or unorthodoxy.” But Trescothick’s candour – including writing about breaking down in tears in Dixons at Heathrow airport – made an impression on cricketing fans and his sporting peers.

“I was advised at the time that this would be a great help to many people by the then-chair of the PCA [Professional Cricketers’ Association],” he says. “I couldn’t understand whether that would be the case, but he was absolutely right because everybody, in all walks of life, from professional to media to general supporters, were like: ‘thank you for writing it’.

“I had someone the other day – and it’s been 12 years since I wrote the book – thank me for writing it,” he adds. “It’s brilliant to think from my bad situation I’ve been able to help somebody get better.”

Plenty of other sports people have brought out books sharing experiences of mental health and illness. Dame Kelly Holmes’ autobiography Black, White & Gold detailed her issues with self-harm; Bruno shared his own mental health journey in his 2017 book, Let Me Be Frank, and later this year, ex-Man United and Newcastle striker Andy Cole is to bring out a memoir, Fast Forward, which will touch on life with depression.

Marcus Trescothick: 'It’s brilliant to think from my bad situation I’ve been able to help somebody get better.'
Marcus Trescothick: 'It’s brilliant to think from my bad situation I’ve been able to help somebody get better.'

Has there been a knock-on effect with media coverage and awareness?When Time to Change, an anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, collaborated with King’s College London to examine the reporting of mental illness in UK print media, initial findings were worrying.

At the start of the study in 2008, stigmatising coverage consistently outweighed positive reporting on mental health problems. But by 2016, there were significantly more anti-stigmatising than stigmatising articles. There were also more articles about mental health issues than any previous year of the study.

This shift matters, say campaigners, because stigmatising coverage can fuel fear and misunderstanding, which in turn can lead to isolation and inhibit the recovery of people with mental illness. “Inferring someone with a mental health problem is a danger to others, portraying somebody as a hopeless victim, stereotyped images such as head-clutching and describing symptoms as ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ are just some examples of stigmatising coverage,” Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change, tells HuffPost UK.

“We know that when high-profile sports people speak out it can make a big difference.”

- Jo Loughran, Time to Change

Greater sensitivity in reporting has led to more sports stars trusting the media with their stories, no doubt helped by guidelines provided by charities to the media on how to cover these topics – and awards for when they get it right.

Loughran credits figures like Kelly Holmes and the Tottenham and England footballer Danny Rose, who is open about his depression, for spearheading change. “We know that when high-profile sports people speak out it can make a big difference. Mind’s research found that a quarter of people said hearing a celebrity talk openly about their own mental health had directly inspired them to seek help for themselves,” she says.

Dame Kelly Holmes.
Dame Kelly Holmes.

There has been a “sea change” in public understanding of mental illness since the early 2000s, says Marjorie Wallace of Sane. The pattern for openness we’ve seen among sports people, film stars and even the Royals – with their Heads Together campaign – has rippled out to the British public, too. Discussing this impact, Bruno notes: “When Prince William and Prince Harry talked about it a couple of years ago, it almost put the Royal seal of approval on the fact it’s good to talk and tell people about your mental health issues.”

But campaigning alone is not enough, says Wallace. Earlier this month, all 32 Emirates FA Cup Third Round fixtures were delayed by a minute to promote better mental health among football fans, with a video played in each stadium and live on TV. The clip, narrated by the Duke of Cambridge and starring Frank Lampard, Harry Maguire and Alex Scott, encouraged fans to ‘Take A Minute’ to look after their mental health and that of their family and friends.

It reached millions of people in the UK, but Wallace argues that the success of these campaigns is no good if services aren’t in place to provide support. In fact, such has been the impact of anti-stigma messaging that already overstretched mental health services are, in many areas, “buckling under the strain”, she explains. “Our concern now is the increasing gap between the rhetoric and reality of frontline services, leaving far too many people in crisis with even less help when they need it the most.”

“Take the politics out of the issue and just do something – and I mean actually do something”

- Frank Bruno

Members of the public are also concerned. “I’m all for raising awareness and furthering the conversation but we need the resources,” read one tweet about the ‘Take A Minute’ campaign. “The NHS needs more funding to provide adequate mental health services, this is what matters.” Journalist and mental health commentator Hannah-Jane Parkinson put it more starkly: “Brutal scenes I’m sure as all the people inspired by #FACup initiative to seek help for their mental health gets immediately put on a 2 year waiting list for service barely held together by overworked staff.”

This demand for action resonates strongly with Bruno who tells HuffPost he wants the government to “stop talking about what they are going to do and actually do something”.

He has attended meetings with government representatives and MPs on the issue, but still his office and charity, the Frank Bruno Foundation, is inundated with letters from people saying they can’t get help for their mental health issue or have been let down. “The system is not working,” he says. “We have a new government, there should be a cross-party planning meeting on mental health. Take the politics out of the issue and just do something – and I mean actually do something – to improve the service mental health sufferers and their carers are currently getting.

“I am not saying it’s all bad, but there is lots of room for improvement. Most of all listen to the patients that have come through the system, listen to their carers and use their experiences as a base to make the improvements.”

Additional interviews by Rachel Moss.

Visit HuffPost UK’s dedicated Head in the Game site to read our full series of daily interviews with sports people about their mental health and wellbeing.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org