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Gary Speed’s Death: The Links Between Sport and Suicide

By Periscope @periscopepost


Gary Speed’s death: The links between sport and suicide

Gary Speed Tributes, Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Photo credit: Jon Candy

The reported death by suicide of 42-year-old ex-footballer Gary Speed has prompted a renewed focus on the problem of suicide, depression and anxiety in the world of elite level sport. The media inquest has focused on how macho locker room culture may encourage some players to bottle up mental health issues.


The depth of the problem has been underlined by the fact that five players have anonymously contacted the Sporting Chance Clinic since the death of Speed, asking for professional help. In the wake of Speed’s death, the Professional Footballers’ Association has commissioned a book to help its members deal with depression which will be sent to 4,000 players and be made available to 50,000 former professionals.

On Monday, Ronald Reng’s biography of German goalkeeper Robert Enke — who took his life by stepping in front of a train in 2009 — was announced as the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Sport’s culture of wilful blindness. Writing at The Times, former international cricketer Ed Smith argued that the deaths of Speed and ex-cricketer Peter Roebuck “highlight the raised suicide risk for sportsmen.” Smith lamented that “the words sport and suicide are appearing far too often in the same sentence.” Smith acknowledged that we do not yet know the circumstances of Speed’s death, but argued that, “it is striking and revealing that even his closest friends in football were utterly shocked. That may be symptomatic of a widespread problem. Pretending to be tougher — and saner — than you are is often a central part of life in professional sport.” Smith insisted there is “certainly a culture of wilful blindness about the mental fragility of your team-mates.” “Being well-adapted to experiencing pain may be part of the problem”, suggested Smith. He flagged up psychologists have found that “the learnt ability to hurt oneself” makes sportsmen “more likely to die at their own hands.”

In an apparent appeal to all those bottling up their mental health issues, Stan Collymore, an ex-footballer who has battled depression for 13 years, tweeted, “You are not alone. There are millions of us.”

The emotional rollercoaster that is top-level sport. Oliver Kay, football correspondent, The Times (£), argued that the “emotional rollercoaster” of top-level sport “can lead to helplessness.” Kay reported that many footballers struggle to deal with “the emotional peaks and troughs” that the game brings: “At the top level, football brings incredible riches, but some players find a lack of depth to their life or their relationships.” In the macho world of football, Kay said that players do develop “close relationships” but these do not “often seem not to extend to cries for help.”

“Remember Speed fondly, by all means, remember the footballer and the man, but do not try to mine some great nobility or meaning from his passing”, pleaded Martin Samuel of The Daily Mail.

Suicide contagion and the dangers of glorification. The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel voiced his fears that a “dangerous thought process” could inspire “suicide contagion.” He feared that some sufferers in the game may well be asking themselves: “And if Speed — successful footballer, successful manager, wealthy, good-looking, family man, well liked and respected — cannot hack it, how can I?” With this in mind, Samuel insisted that, “we need to tread very carefully around the death of Speed. People do get ideas, particularly people who are in despair, and sport and suicide have been establishing unnervingly close ties of late.” Turning to how best to pay tribute to Speed, Samuel argued that, “we must not allow our respect and sadness to mutate into glorification.” He said Wales qualifying for the World Cup “‘for Gary’ is one thing, and plans to make the next Wales fixture a memorial match for their manager are fitting, but where to draw the line? Surely at calls for Speed to be honoured at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards … how strange would it be to give an award that is also linked to personality, posthumously, to a man whose final act proved so few knew of his true nature, even his closest friends?”

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