With news emerging this week that Everton’s Aaron Lennon had been detained under the Mental Health Act, the world of football found itself faced with how to respond to the issue of mental health, and the response was generally heartening, if not a little uncomfortable and stereotypical.
It’s unclear where the source of the information on Lennon first came from, but the Daily Mail appeared to be the first newspaper to ‘break’ the story. It did so in typical fashion, conflating the 30 year old’s health issues with details of his salary, as if the two had any relevance to one another. A flurry of angry responses to that effect on social media had the Mail backtracking, removing mention of Lennon’s remuneration with some haste. By inviting readers to make the link between Lennon’s wealth, and Lennon’s health, the Mail was behaving true to form; success, wealth and fame are seen as things to be prized, and as insulators against the difficulties that life can present. They could not be more wrong.
The tragic and untimely death in 2011 of former Everton, Leeds and Newcastle star Gary Speed, who at the time was the manager of the Welsh national team, sent shockwaves through the game, and much wider. Speed had enjoyed a glittering career, and was transferring that success as a player into management. He had titles, one assumes he had wealth, he had a loving wife and family; to the outside world he seemed to be living a charmed life, one that a lot of people would swap theirs for in an instant. So how could Speed be suffering with depression? Sadly, mental illness is no respecter of status or achievement. Pressures to maintain that facade of perfection can weigh heavily, lest something should happen that might not fit in with the picture of a life in which Speed seemed to have the Midas touch.
Although less well known on these shores, the tragic death in 2009 of Robert Enke, the goalkeeper of the German national team, was equally shocking. Enke had struggled with depression for in excess of six years, exacerbated by the death of his young daughter. Aged just 32, he told his family he was attending a training session, but there was no session. He wrote a note, stepped out of his car at a level crossing near his home and was fatally struck by a train. Again, Enke’s suffering had been largely solitary. He denied having depression, battling with his ‘black dog’ in silence. In his biography of Enke, ‘A Life Too Short’, the author Ronald Reng described how being a goalkeeper contributed to Enke’s isolation; as a goalkeeper, he felt that the scrutiny of being the last line of defence placed a requirement upon him to be ‘the strong man’. Mistakes in his position were magnified so much more than those made by others in the team; somehow, the old adage that “you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper” feels hideously uncomfortable when set against Enke’s torment. He had played for Barcelona, reached almost the pinnacle of his career, and was set to be the German national team’s goalkeeper at the 2010 World Cup, but rather than being Enke’s salvation, those things were actually his damnation.
This leads us back to Aaron Lennon. There has been speculation, and it is only speculation, is that aged 30, and with a club career that seems to be going backwards, Lennon may be unable to cope with the idea that his football career is entering its twilight years and he is ill-prepared to cope with it. He was touted as a star of the future at a particularly early age, had a boot sponsorship deal with Adidas aged 14 and made his Premier League debut for Leeds aged 16. Sold to Tottenham because of Leeds’ financial issues, he went on to play for England but saw opportunities decrease at Tottenham and joined Everton after a spell on loan. Sadly the move didn’t rejuvenate his career, and the impression left would certainly have been of a man at a crossroads. However, this is all speculation, nothing more. It is entirely up to Lennon as to whether he feels he wants to comment on such things publicly, and he certainly shouldn’t feel under any pressure to do so. Whilst it is a positive thing that mental health is becoming more recognised, it should still be down to the individual how they choose to deal with it. Talking about mental health does help to remove the stigma, but no-one should feel cowed into doing so. From personal experience, I can only say that for me, talking about it has helped hugely.
As for how football has responded to Lennon’s difficulties, I know that some have expressed their discomfort at whether displaying his image on big screens at matches this weekend and inviting fans to cheer and sing Lennon’s name is an appropriate response. I agree with this to some extent; those behind the gesture and those lending their backing intend it as an expression of their support. However, if Lennon is struggling with depression, his struggle may be with acceptance of himself. Being able to express himself through football has been Lennon’s life; when opportunities to be able to do so are reduced the self-doubt can creep in. It is often the confidence gained through doing the things you enjoy and the things at which you excel that provide you with enough confidence to be able to handle the more stressful, more difficult and more mundane things which life presents.
It is to be hoped that football’s response to Lennon’s struggles amounts to more than just a metaphorical ‘get well’ card displayed on a big screen. Lennon himself may not wish to be part of that conversation, and we should respect his choice if that is what he decides. However, if Lennon opts for privacy, that shouldn’t be a reason not to continue the conversation, and to help continue changing attitudes towards mental health. When the fans chant “There’s only one Aaron Lennon”, the sad truth is that there are many, many more Aaron Lennons out there, and only by encouraging them to feel they can share their difficulties can we prevent more tragedies such as those that befell Gary Speed and Robert Enke.
If we can acknowledge that the wealthy and privileged are no less protected from mental health issues, we may even help to bring about a shift in attitudes towards mental health across the whole of society. That would be the best result of all.