A footballer’s despair: why we must stop singing ‘Boys Don’t Cry’

Editors note: This is the sixth in a monthly series of guest posts on the subject of mental health.  Award-winning writer and blogger Tim Atkinson is a stay-at-home dad. It is a role he loves and which he combines with part-time teaching and of course his writing. His blog and online diary ‘Bringing Up Charlie’ has a wide and loyal readership and his creative writing course has helped many people find their writing ‘voice’.

On November 10th 2009, a man stepped onto the railway lines at the Neustadt-Eilvese crossing, on the route between Hamburg and Bremen in Germany. Two train drivers reported seeing him on the tracks but were unable to stop. Robert Enke was pronounced dead at the scene.

If the name seems familiar it might be because you read reports of the incident at the time. It was big news. Because although the suicide of a 36 year-old German male wouldn’t normally receive world-wide press attention, Robert Enke was the German national goalkeeper, a highly paid professional footballer with a successful Bundesliga career and spells with Fenerbahce, Barcelona, Benfica and Borussia Mönchengladbach to his credit.

Although happily married, Enke and his wife were no strangers to tragedy.  In 2006 their daughter Lara died at the age of two of a rare heart condition. And having been treated on and off for depression since 2003, Enke became increasingly worried that the couple’s 18-month-old adopted  daughter Leila would be taken into care if he went public about his depression. Nobody at his club, Hanover, had any idea about his problem.

Although he had been receiving treatment in private, on the day of his suicide Enke had cancelled all his appointments until further notice. In a note, the footballer apologised for the deliberate concealment but claimed that it had all been necessary in order to put his plan into action.

Necessary. It’s a startling fact that although more women, on average, suffer ‘mental illness’ (or should I say, seek treatment for it) male suicides far outnumbers those of women. What is it about men like Enke (men like all of us) that means we can’t express ourselves, even in the depths of despair? Why the need to cover up, self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs, deny and lie until it’s too late?

Pretty soon after planning my novel, Writing Therapy, I knew that the first-person narrator of the story was going to have to be female. Although writing from the perspective of a teenage girl was likely to make the project far harder, there seemed no way a male narrator could credibly and candidly discuss his own depression and its treatment in the form of a confessional novel. It’s not what ‘we’ do; we’re men. We don’t talk about our feelings; instead we either hit the bottle or bottle it all up. Until it’s too late.

But it needn’t be. Boys need to talk, too. And we – as parents – need to talk to them. And show them that it isn’t always possible to be strong, to take what life throws at you, to go it alone. We all need help. And we need to make sure we’re not too proud, stubborn or embarrassed to admit it.

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2 Responses to A footballer’s despair: why we must stop singing ‘Boys Don’t Cry’

  1. Rivenrod says:

    It’s true, men don’t cry but I contend that generally speaking we don’t bottle it up either, at least not in the accepted sense. What we do is push the “darkness” to the back of the cupboard in the vague hope it is imaginary. We, as parents, must help our children explore their darker recesses and understand it’s not imaginary but very, very real and then reassure them that it’s really ok to feel the way they do.

    On balance, from a lifetime of bitter personal experience, men in particular are pretty rubbish at being wholesome human beings.

  2. keatsbabe says:

    I agree with you – although I am not sure men are that bad at being wholesome! Maybe the stresses ooze out in different ways. Aggression perhaps? It is hard to encourage children to think about these things – mine have generally looked a little blank when the subject is broached but it is important to try..

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