Clarke Carlisle: Football is way behind cricket in dealing with mental health issues

London Evening Standard

Clarke Carlisle is now able to talk frankly about the issues that saw him step in front of an oncoming lorry three days before Christmas.

It was only towards the end of his career that Carlisle first learned he was suffering from depression and by that stage he had already tried to take his own life once. After his second suicide attempt last year, Clarke spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

The former Queens Park Rangers and Watford defender is now trying to promote the issues surrounding mental illness and wishes organisations, such as the FA, would do more.

“The governing bodies of football haven’t done anything,” says the 35-year-old. “I went to interview David Bernstein two years ago, when he was in situ as chair of the FA, and he couldn’t tell me a single initiative that they were working on in mental health.”

Two weeks ago Clarke helped Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launch the Mental Health Charter for Recreation and Sport. The FA are among those to have signed up to it but Clarke says: “I really am reluctant to give them a pat on the back because all it is is a charter to ask organisations to look at what they are doing and to acknowledge mental health as an issue.

“This is way, way behind the level of service and structured support athletes need. It is way behind the level of responsibility that a governing body should be taking for the mental wellbeing of the purveyors of their sport.

“The national governing body of football has just caught on to the end of the curve and is way behind cricket.”

He does praise the Professional Footballers’ Association, of which he is former chairman, for the work they do in this area but accepts that attitudes within the game are no different from society at large.

Dejected: Carlisle after defeat in the League Two Play Off Final between Bradford City and Northampton Town in 2013 “There is a huge reticence in the general population to discuss mental health issues. If someone is off with a broken leg, they get a card, chocolates and flowers. If they are off with stress, then everyone is like, ‘oh how long are they going to have their jolly and when are they back in?’ A survey in The Times of executives and business owners showed some 70 plus per cent didn’t acknowledge mental health issues as a viable reason for time off work.”

During a 16-year career Clarke helped Burnley gain promotion to the Premier League, winning man of the match in the 2009 Play-off Final. He also  became a prominent television pundit and the first footballer on Question Time, on which he appeared twice.  However, all was not well. “At that time I was able to put my mask on, hide my underlying emotions and perform my duties diligently. But then, when you get behind closed doors, that is where my addictive behaviours come to the fore. I was living the life of a natural depression sufferer. It is a conscious effort to put your face on and go and face the world, or even your children, after you wake up.”

Clarke became aware of his depression in 2011 when, with his wife Gemma expecting another baby, he read about post-natal depression. “I realised I was showing the majority of the symptoms even though I obviously hadn’t had a baby.”

When his club’s doctor told him he had depression, his reaction was: “How can I have depression? I have a fantastic job, I’ve got a beautiful family.”

He had tried to take his life with an overdose in 2001, after suffering a severe knee injury while he was at QPR. Last December his attempt was more thoroughly planned. “A lot of people think suicide is just a split decision. From the moment I decided I was going to kill myself, there was a period of 36 hours of meticulous planning. I was walking around York for probably about 30 straight hours wondering where would be the perfect location.”

Carlisle has had problems with both drinking and gambling and two months ago he launched the Clarke Carlisle Foundation so that people who suffer from mental health problems and addiction can be treated for both simultaneously.

“If you go to the mental health department they say you have to deal with your addiction,” he says. “If you go to the addiction department they tell you to deal with your mental health issues.”

Carlisle admits he has only started on this journey and has many hurdles to cross. He is back in court next month to be sentenced, having pleaded guilty to a drink-driving offence which happened a few days before his suicide attempt.

Carlisle has split from his of 14 years wife and moved out of the family home. The father-of-three has also had to find a way of explaining to his youngest two children Marley, seven, and Honey, four what he suffers from.

“I told them, ‘you know when you have a stomach ache and I can’t see it but you know it really hurts. Well daddy has it in his head and it is called depression. It makes me think strange things. I was so poorly I walked in front of the truck. Now I need to get better’.”


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