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10 Oct 2022 301
Safety and Welfare Self-care and development Well-being

A Journey Towards Understanding Mental Health, with Clarke Carlisle

Clarke Carlisle spent ten of his 17 years as a professional footballer with undiagnosed depression. He attempted to take his own life on five occasions before conquering his inner demons and is now a leading mental health campaigner and motivational speaker. In this Question & Answer, he tells coaches why it is critical they improve their knowledge and understanding of mental health issues, and offers astute advice on a topic that – thanks to sustained public awareness campaigns – people now feel more comfortable talking about

Clarke Carlisle’s plain-spoken recollections of his darkest moments living with depression are simultaneously shocking, saddening and distressing. His story is also utterly and unashamedly compelling, as he weaves in a succession of valuable lessons learnt from each tumultuous twist and turn.

Recalling the lingering cloud that for so long had cast a shadow over his life, he details how this cloud slowly descended, before engulfing and overwhelming him, culminating in multiple suicide attempts.

Thankfully, Clarke emerged into a golden sky at the end of the persistent storm and is now lighting the way for other people with mental health problems, and enlightening those who are best placed to support them. 

One episode in particular from his compelling story epitomises the crucial role coaches can play in making a significant difference to the lives of people experiencing mental health problems.  

In September 2017, “intent on taking my own life” during a period of detachment when his brain fog had thickened and he could see no way out, the former Burnley and Leeds United defender was reported missing from his home in Preston by his family.

He was rescued from the brink by a chance encounter with a good Samaritan.

The man had read a missing persons appeal from Lancashire Police that had been widely shared on social media, and spotted Clarke sitting alone on a park bench in Liverpool.

Clarke says he had been “lurking in the shadows" and “set on the most convenient and responsible way to kill myself.”

The man put his arm around Clarke, before revealing that his friend had killed himself just a few days earlier.

“He cried on my shoulder, told me he was concerned about me and persuaded me to get in touch with my family.”

This simple act of compassion will resonate with coaches renowned for their strong capacity for empathy and natural desire to make a positive difference to people’s lives. 

And because an integral role of a coach is to care, to nurture, to support, to listen and to advise, it means they are perfectly positioned to assume that same guardian angel role when working with people who are experiencing mental health problems. 

It is critical, therefore, that all coaches have the confidence to be able to start a conversation with someone who may be experiencing mental health problems, and work to gain a deeper understanding of, and sensitivity to, issues relating to mental health. 

This is especially important when you consider the current state of the nation’s mental health:

  • Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in this country.
  • 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England.
  • three quarters of common mental health problems are established by the age of 24.

Question & Answer

Clarke has been an ambassador for mental health charity Mind since 2014 and is the former Chair of the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association). He founded the Clarke Carlisle Foundation for Dual Diagnosis charity in 2015, and the same year helped to launch the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation.

We are indebted to Mind for giving us the opportunity to spend some time with Clarke prior to him appearing on stage in a panel discussion at their annual Mental Health in Sport and Physical Activity Conference.

In our video interview with Clarke he discusses the importance of mental health training for everyone involved in sport and physical activity. 

A coach has a duty to care for their participants, which means putting their safety, well-being and welfare at the heart of everything they do. But in relation to helping people with mental health problems, how far does a coach’s responsibility stretch to in terms of recognising, responding to and supporting people who need help?

“We need to upskill the entirety of society to different levels. There is an ambiguity around the boundaries of self and services. So, we need to upskill our people, our services, our communities to know that it’s our job to support the next person, but it’s not our job to fix them.

“Coaches need to be knowledgeable enough to understand what may be going on and know when to pass people on to professional services.

“It is incumbent on all those in positions of responsibility to have a requisite level of understanding around the issue of mental health, including knowing when signs and symptoms are presenting themselves and where to signpost people experiencing adverse mental health.

“The appetite to talk about mental health, to verbalise and open up on living with mental health problems, has grown exponentially. Now what we need to do is marry that with the confidence and the competence to know who to talk to, when to talk to them and what to say.”

How do you think the sport and physical activity sector has changed in the last five or six years since you became an Ambassador for Mind? 

“When it comes to approaching mental health, the dynamic has changed quite drastically, it really has. We see some fantastic initiatives and some really good support services in and around various sports, and in and around various clubs in various sports. 

What I believe the changing dynamic has to be now, is the collaboration of those efforts.

“One of the things that comes out of academic research around mental health support systems is that the one thing worse than not having a support system is having one and then having it subsequently taken away. So, there’s a compounded impact of loss and grief and floundering within that scenario, and we need to apply that knowledge to our sports sector because it's such a transient population. 

“In my sport, football, you go from club to club on an annual, biannual basis. So, to go from Everton or West Brom, for example, who have outstanding mental health support structures, and then find yourself at – without being disparaging – a lower league club that hasn’t got the resources for such a support system… we need to collate and conflate these systems so that they are uniform: uniformly delivered and uniformly accessed.”

What difference do you think it would have made to you to have had that support system during your career as a professional footballer?

“Being a ruminator, I’ve relived my life experiences many, many hundreds of thousands of times, and this has been a constituent notion of part of that thought process. 

“The support services that are in place are no good without the individual motivation, and the individual knowledge, to access those services and implement the learnings.

So even over the course of my life, and how I've experienced depression in my life, there have been several junctures where the requisite knowledge and services were there externally, but not within me. 

“When I was prescribed medication in 2010, I didn't take it because I had a reluctance to engage with any kind of drugs because of my elite sport background and the fear of being banned through cross contaminants. 

“There was also that machismo – ‘I’m not taking happy pills’ – because I didn't understand what the basis of medication was. In 2014 when I went into a psychiatric hospital, I engaged happily with a consultant psychiatrist while I was there, but then when I came out, I just had a pamphlet and I thought that I knew everything and had all the answers. 

“Again, that little bit of knowledge, it can be disserving. It was a dangerous thing for me. 

I didn't do any kind of further ‘talking therapies’ to explore what my depression means to me; how it manifests itself; what my signs, symptoms, triggers are; how can I mitigate all of that? I did no self-awareness or growth.

“So, it’s only when I come to 2017 when the diagnosis is there, the medication is there, the services are there, and my engagement with all of those is there. 

From that point – having all those essential components in place – wellness isn’t just possible, it’s inevitable.

“And that's what I try to share with people. So, you know, even if the services were there in 2001, I didn't know enough to engage with them.

“But what I know now, I believe – at least the very core of what I know now – should be taught to our young men, women and non-binaries in primary school like it is with their physical health. 

“Children know what to do with a nosebleed, or that if they burn their hand, to run it under a tap. They know when something is severe enough to get a teacher, or when to dial 999. These core competencies, just at a basic level, let's bring them into our primary school system and start to develop a generation that holistically is aware of who they are.”

Do you think the conversations you’re having now in clubs in your role as a mental health campaigner could have happened five, six years ago, and would have had the same receptiveness? 

“Categorically no! There are several different strands that inform systemic change, and – because of the generational differences, and because of the vested interest in the powers-that-be in any given place – what has to come with the humanitarian aspect is, unfortunately, the financial aspect, the business benefit. 

“Everyone, at every stage, with a position of power or influence has to be convinced that this profit solution will meet their ends. Not everyone sits where we are in looking after the human being. Many people need to see that ‘okay, will this benefit my business?’. Well, now, five years down the line, we can say categorically, yes it will! 

Every pound you spend on supporting your employees’ mental health will get you a return on investment of up to 800%. If you spend no money on your employees’ mental health, it will cost you upwards of two and a half thousand pounds per employee per year. 

“It affects not only the absenteeism rates but the presenteeism of your employees when they're in their workplace. They are more efficient, more effective and they manage their time better. 

“But there are also fewer issues, fewer points of crisis, where we know that, intervening then, costs far more than implementing early intervention, awareness and training systems. 

“So, no, the hierarchy, the powers that be, wouldn't have been as receptive five years ago as they are now. And that's thanks to academic research, that's thanks to the work of Mind and other brilliant entities within this space. And it's thanks to the social activism of high-profile people, especially athletes and celebrities who are helping to tear down that stereotypical classification around what it is to live with mental health issues. 

They are showing that it is indiscriminate, that it applies to everyone, but equally that everyone can make progress. There is ALWAYS a solution.”

Mental Health Awareness for Sport and Physical Activity

Gain the confidence to support people living with mental health problems to feel comfortable and capable of engaging in sport and physical activity by completing our online course, developed in partnership with Mind

Learn More

UK Coaching Duty to Care Digital Badge

Earn our free nationally recognised Digital Badge by demonstrating your thorough knowledge of the five pillars of Duty to Care (Safeguarding, Diversity, Inclusion, Mental Health, Well-being)

Find out more

Related Resources

  • Clarke Carlisle: Coaches have a Duty of Care to Look Out for their Participants’ Mental Health

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  • Person-Centred Coaching Key to Improving Mental Health

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  • Delivering Change through Good Mental Health

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