“The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at the threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.”
(from ‘To an Athlete dying young’ by A.E. Housman 1896)
Gary Speed ended his life yesterday aged 42, less than a year into his role as Manager of the Welsh Football team. A former International player with 85 caps for Wales and over 500 Premier League appearances for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle et al, Speed won a range of first class honours in the game.
Suicide is a tragic loss. It is usually the result of sheer desperation and hopelessness, generally set against a background of mental health problems. It is more common than you think. In the UK nearly 1 in 5000 die as a result of suicide and for those aged 15 – 34 (male and female) it is the commonest cause of death.
When sports people kill themselves the reaction is generally one of disbelief. Take the headlines following deaths of Robert Enke in 2009 and Justin Fashanu in 1998 – ‘stunned, dismayed, shocked’. We often bestow on these people an assumption of invincibility, a belief that they must be mentally strong to cope with the demands of training and competing at the highest level. Yet our experience suggests otherwise. Athletes are human, very human.
In my experience the flip side of immense physical resilience can be a relative lack of emotional resilience. Ally that to the ‘macho’ nature of many sports and we see a recipe for not sharing concerns or seeking help. Research shows that hopelessness is a major determining factor in completed suicide. This is the very factor that most sportspeople wouldn’t dare admit to. Providing access to confidential professional help and helping overcome the huge reluctance to seek help is paramount.
It’s good to talk.