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Gary Speed

On Friday I played a small part in the CALM takeover of Topman, to launch the new London CALMzone, at their store on Oxford Street. I interviewed some of the DJs who had very kindly agreed to come down and be a part of it. It was fairly chaotic, filming folk running around and people like Zane Lowe popping in and out, but the support that these people showed for the cause and for CALM’s message – that the silence is killing us – was incredible. We did some great stuff, patted ourselves on the back and went straight down to the pub to celebrate a job well done.

And then, over the weekend, Gary Speed, the manager of the Welsh national football team, took his own life.

The day before, he had appeared on Football Focus, a programme broadcast live. He talked about the exciting time he was having managing a rejuvenated Welsh national team. He appeared jovial, relaxed and together. He joked with friends like fellow ex-footballers Alan Shearer and Gary McAllister and made plans to see them again soon. On Sunday morning he was found dead at his home.

A lot of people have said the same thing that is often said – why? He had a beautiful family, he was wealthy and had a magnificent future ahead of him, both in and out of football. Most notably for many he seemed, just a few hours before, very relaxed and content.

It’s a good question, in the shock we need some kind of answer that makes sense of something so unexpected, but sadly the search for an adequate reason is missing the point. If we discover a reason and solve this “suicide mystery” as the press have described it, does that mean we can move on? Should we do that for the 3,421 male suicides that occurred in England and Wales last year? The reasons are important to his family, who we feel for and send our love to at this time, but explanations are not central to what we, as a society, must do now. What we must do is think about what it means when a 42 year-old man who has been hugely successful, is massively talented and has a very exciting future ahead of him decides to take his own life. Why does it happen so often, day in and day out, in our country? Why are 75% of all suicides male? What is it about being a male that means you’re 3 times as likely to complete suicide?

It is good to ask people – friends, family and even strangers who we feel the need to – how they are feeling. In fact, it’s great, and we should do it more often. But we must also work to change the perception that we actually want to hear the answer.

Gary Speed seemed happy. Maybe he was, in the moments he spoke to friends, maybe that’s exactly what made him happiest. But this is in the context of a society where people, especially men, still often feel unable to say how they are truly feeling and to trust that others will listen to them.

We can ask the question, ‘how are you feeling?’, but if someone doesn’t trust that they won’t be thought less of if they answer honestly then what’s the point of asking the question? And this isn’t just an issue for footballers or sportsmen, we need to get this right for every man, as suicide and mental health problems don’t discriminate, they don’t just affect the rich, the poor, the young or the old. This is something we ALL have to do something about.

As a society, we need to open up. We need to talk to each other, we need to listen to each other and we need to show everyone, absolutely everyone, the same respect that will help them to know that they are a human being and that they are not alone.

CALM’s message and your support for this work, which enables them to support men with their helpline, website and London text service, has never been so important.

Everyone involved on Friday did some good work. But there’s still so much more to do…

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8 Responses to this article

  1. When people ask why someone is depressed, or why someone would kill themselves, it seems to me the question could be rephrased as ‘What are the logical, causal events that led to this happening?’. When they are confused by seemingly incongruent factors like career success, family life, respect from peers, abundant friendships, and so on, the conclusion becomes: ‘it doesn’t make any sense’. Depression and despair are not without reason, but it is not a logic that yields easy answers. The reasons are convoluted and complex – sometimes inscrutable – but when sufferers try to understand and communicate them they are told they are being self-indulgent or overly analytical.

    Depression is largely interior, if it shows on the outside think of it as the tip of the iceberg. Most of the effects are felt inside. Open, empathic communication can help to draw some of the poison out of the wound, but rather than promote this outlet, society continues to stigmatise it. Mental illness is taboo. Still. Silence kills because it denies the sufferer the hope of reaching out and the solace of being accepted. A climate of compassion may not be enough to save someone from the depths of depression or suicide, but at the very least it prevents a sufferer from departing the world amidst their own private hell. An illness should not be a guilty secret.

    The way society speaks about mental illness is telling in its ignorance. We use language that implies mental health is brought about by attitude and volition, which connotes agency and therefore responsibility upon the afflicted. I am not discounting the role of willpower in recovery – it has its place – but to frame a debilitating disease in these terms is not only inaccurate, it is demoralising and it is dangerous. Mental illness is a tough enough burden to bear without the attribution of blame to compound it. I’m ill and it’s my fault on top. I’m ill and its my fault I’m not responding to drugs or therapy. What’s wrong with me? I must have a bad attitude.

    So is it any wonder that we place our illness behind a smiling, joking façade? Is it a mystery why we are killed off by this disease without anyone around us having a clue it was coming? Our shame builds the mask of respectability society demands, and if we are posthumously judged as weak at least our eyes and ears will be closed to the admonishment. We’ll condemn ourselves enough anyway, as we’ve long since internalised society’s prejudice against the mentally ill.

    Two years ago my father hanged himself in his home. Estranged from everyone, including me, his body was not discovered for weeks. The Community Mental Health Team had long since given up on him, because he would not communicate readily, did not respond in the chaos of an institutional ward, and they did not hear his needs. Perhaps, given the severity of his depression, his death was inevitable. It was certainly an end to a long and ravaging torment. Had his life played out within a culture that had learned to explore and understand mental illness, however, I’m sure his quality of life would have been better, and perhaps he would not have died alone. And he was one of the few who actually reach out for help.

    The silence that kills isn’t just the silence of the sufferer. It is the silence of the friend who fails to respond or who neglects to touch base at least every once in a while. It is the silence of the GP who lacks understanding and sends us away with a prescription for SSRIs and nothing else. It is even the silence of the friend who means well, but just doesn’t know what to say, because society does not prepare us for such conversations, and we’re out of our depth. It is the silence of the sense of it being better to say nothing at all than to say the wrong thing. It is the unspoken support and the absence of reassuring touch.

    Like my father I have suffered crippling depression and anxiety throughout my life. I have tried to be open, albeit cautiously and selectively. I still feel like I’m being an unappealing friend if I’m honest about how I’m feeling, even if I can still counterbalance it by actively listening in turn and sharing laughter and discussion too. All I can manage is to skim the surface in terms of communicating about my illness. The true depth of angst and despair is something I keep to myself. My expectation is that it would be instantly repellent to share it. Mental illness has impaired my life immensely, but I still feel like I have to conform to the social veneer of ‘normality’ as the alternative is to be alienated further. Alienation and depression travel as partners along a scale, and at the desolate end the destination is suicide. That’s why silence is killing us.

    Terry B 28th November 2011 at 3:53 pm
  2. I don’t know if this will help anyone other than me but I came up with this description of my depression whilst I was in a Psychiatric Ward under a ‘section’ for anyone who doesn’t know that essentially means held against my will for my own protection as I was a suicide risk.

    I can only say its how my depression feels because I am aware that I can only speak from my own experience and not that of anyone else.

    I see depression as like driving down a road in patchy fog. One minute you know exactly where you are and where your going – you know your in a car on the road and you know your destination. Then you hit a bank of fog. You can’t see – you don’t know where your going and sometimes your not even sure where you have come from. You don’t know your in a car and your not even sure if there is a road let alone that you are on it. I get confused – I don’t know what else to do. Its at times like these that you feel like you have no other choice but to kill yourself – you feel like the depression is going to last forever so you have no choice and no hope. What is the point in living if you don’t know what living without confusion is?

    This is depressions cruelest trick – it makes you believe that it will always be this way. It isn’t – if you can try to think about it there are times when you are free from depression so it can’t be true that it will last forever. I am not a big fan of drugs but I believe the answer is different for different people – some respond to drugs better than ever – For me the ‘answer’ was a combination of drugs and counseling. The Important thing is not to suffer in silence – there are things that can be done to help – I accept that I might always be prone to depression but I know now to seek help when I realize I an starting to get depressed. Talk, talk and talk some more, most importantly talk to your doctor. For anyone who has a relative who is depressed listen to them and ALWAYS take them seriously. If you don’t feel you can help then get them to someone who can help.

    Stay Safe guys.

    David Pollard 28th November 2011 at 8:47 pm
  3. Terry B, you’re article is both eloquent and relevant. I enjoyed it very much and related to it on an everyday basis. David, your article contained some very good advice. Well done to both of you for writing on this subject, I’m sure it will help other men in despair and I believe that we all need to start talking to each other, listening to each other and genuinely caring about our fellow man. The modern man has no ‘cave’ to retreat to where he can find peace and understand the world in which he lives. Even at home, we are expected to conform to social norms of what is considered ‘normal’ behaviour and struggle to give an honest answer even to those closest to us. As a parent, I feel the despair and sense that I am not good enough almost 24/7 but I cook tea, get the kids dressed and try and get through the day. I feel like I should be sharper, more energetic, more fun and inspiring to my kids and often feel a sense of relief when they’ve gone home or to bed, is this normal? It is for me. The ‘fog’ David talks about can be very real, even when the sun is shining outside, and as men, we try to ‘drive’ through it as best we can and hope that on the other side we find some peace, some calm, some relief from this internal civil war and anger, from the constant sense of despair and unworthiness. There is always a way through, there is always hope that the fog will lift and that the sun will shine again. We grieve for the ‘self’ we could have been and see suicide as the only way to end the disappointment, to end the pain but change can come, life can get better and we can find peace in THIS life. But, there is work to be done, whether by ourselves or by asking for help, but I urge you to do one of the two. Think of somebody, one person who you know, maybe someone you only know a little and ask them to help you, ask them to support you, to encourage you and to listen to you. By doing so, you may just give yourself a lifeline and could give that person a purpose. It might just make all the difference.

    Simon Holland 29th November 2011 at 6:19 am
  4. Powerful emotive responses from Martin, Terry, Simon and David that certainly evoked memories and an emotional response in me .

    Very sad and ironic that Gary Speed should commit suicide when all seemed to be fine in his life. I wonder what those demons were that lead to this unforseen tragedy. Men. We need to talk more about our emotions and feelings to one another as well as women.

    Co-incidental to that it occured just after a successful appeareance on Football Focus the day before and two days after CALM’s London launch.

    This Thursday there’s an event looking at why men don’t talk, seek counselling and offering men an opportunity to learn something of the benefits of counselling therapy. It’s called ‘Black Men on the Couch’ for Project 20:20 and is on 1 December 2011, 7.30pm at the Bernie Grant Centre, Tottenham, London.

    Tiemo 29th November 2011 at 11:34 am
  5. Fine eloquent responses from Martin, Simon, Terry and David that evoked depressing memories and an emotional response from me. Men we need to talk to each other more re our emotions and feelings. Less “fronting” and posturing and be real. Talk to women too if you can’t talk to each another man.

    I wonder what the demons inside were that caused Gary Speed to take his own life so tragically.

    RIP Gary Speed

    To give men an opportunity to find out more re the benefits of counselling therapy, project 20:20 is hosting ‘Black Men on the Couch’ this Thursday 1st December, 7 30pm. Bernie Grant Centre, Tottenham, London.

    Advanced booking a must. The last one sold out in advance.

    Tiemo 29th November 2011 at 11:41 am
  6. Women attempt suicide more than men. Men succeed disproportionately because they are more likely to use a firearm. That 75% statistic doesn’t tell the whole story.

    But lovely piece. It is true that we need to be able to reach out and talk to someone when things become dire. It is also true that societies need to do more to reduce the stigmas associated with doing so.

    Suicide is not a dirty word and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. Even if you’re not suicidal, though, you can call a helpline or crisis line if you need help and feel you have nowhere to turn. Most of our first-time calls are serious but not yet suicidal.

    My heart goes out to the loved ones of Gary Speed.

    Crisis line worker 29th November 2011 at 2:51 pm
  7. Great article Martin – Gary Speed had everything in life yet it appears that the indiscriminating, crippling depression proved too much for such a great man.

    Our society and it’s attitude and stigmas is appalling.

    Having become depressed 5 – 6 years ago I feel I have been on both teams.
    As a naive 21 year old I did not believe depression existed but it was an excuse for some. now 27 and having felt like I’ve been on a huge roller coaster ever since I know too well it is a real problem and just how potentially damaging it can be.

    David Pollard – your fog analogy was great. Really described a tricky and deeply individual experience incredibly well.


    Alan 1st December 2011 at 4:32 pm
  8. there is no real evidence this was depression.
    I have experinced coping with a partner with depression none of the evidence seems to suggest garry speed was depressed . This seems more like a reaction to something which may have happened in his life within a short time frame that he has reacted to in such a tragic manor.

    kind of a knee jerk reaction rather than something which has built up over time such has depression. As if hes felt the need to do such a thing rather than face up to the alternative.

    darren 1st December 2011 at 10:26 pm

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