Carlisle’s journey means he’s well placed to address mental health in sport

Clarke Carlisle has a smile these days as warm as the summer sun.

The award-winning ex-PFA chairman, for whom there remains universal respect, now has five children and clarity of mind for which far too many sportsmen and women are still searching.

His 20-year journey has been a long and painful one, punctuated by depression, alcoholism and several well-documented suicide attempts.

Ahead of a new Premier League season, however, Carlisle is perfectly placed to address sport’s inability – still – to understand mental health.

Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, cricketer Ben Stokes and Aston Villa’s England star Tyrone Mings are just four of the big names admitting this summer to have been struggling with their mental health.

The trouble is, while sport implores athletes to speak out, too few bodies know how to react once they do.

“There is still an attachment of mental health to finance, achievement or societal position, when it’s all totally irrelevant,” Carlisle told Mirror Sport.

Carlisle’s 20-year journey has been a long and painful one

“Money may address some issues, but it doesn’t make you immune to grief or the break up of a relationship. It doesn’t make you immune to the repercussions of what happened in your childhood.

“They will take their toll irrespective of our current circumstances, faith or gender. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in this country.

“I believe this is a seminal moment because there’s a level of social activism from high profile athletes, that there never was in my era. “We did stuff but I can look back retrospectively and see that it was tokenism at best. They were just wearing a T-shirt – a gesture.

“But where was the actual demand for systemic change? Where were my words, stating to the powers that be that you are in the wrong here, things must change?

“Those words never came from my mouth? But they are coming from high profile individuals’ mouths now. And we are in an era of transparency and accountability that is being demanded.”

Carlisle’s voice cracks with emotion as he speaks of his heartbreak at losing his ex-Northampton team-mate Lee Collins, whom he’d urged to seek help.

An inquest found last week that the Yeovil Town captain, who had struggled with alcohol and gambling problems, had taken his own life in March.

“I spoke to him,” said Carlisle. “I spoke to him a number of years ago and he asked me: ‘How do I drink less? How do I drink less?

“I said to him: ‘I may never get the answers for you. I’ve got my answers – and I did this.’

“But he said to me: ‘No, I can’t do that,’ So I said to him: ‘You need to speak to these people then.’

“And that’s what’s wrong about this system. You have to self report. You have to engage with the system to get the services.

“I was introduced to the services in 2003. I didn’t engage with them until 2017. But look at the difference. Five suicide attempts against five years now of not just incredible health but the the most well, most efficient, most effective, the most capable I’ve ever been.

“If only I’d had this back in 2001. Who knows? The trouble is, the system is on it’s backside.

“The inception of my depression was in 2001. I went into alcohol rehab in 2003. So we’re talking nearly 20 years ago. And from that point, my only point of reference on my journey was the ex-Arsenal defender Tony Adams.

“Societally there was no depth or general understanding around mental health.

Carlisle has a smile these days as warm as the summer sun


Newcastle Chronicle)

“There was no base level of understanding that anybody had learnt at school or spoken freely about at work.

“No understanding of that feeling of futility, that imposter syndrome, that white knuckling through the day, that desperation to wear a mask when you go to work.

“There was no understanding of the ascent and descent that we are all very familiar with. But athletes get it now. They are taking action and we are at ground zero.”

Carlisle – who made over 500 appearances for nine clubs during his 16-year playing career – is full of praise for today’s generation of stars, including Osaka who withdrew from the French Open Tennis tournament in May after being fined for not attending ‘stressful’ press conferences.

“My first thought with Naomi was – awesome!” he added. “I’ve sat in her seat. This is a person not only aware of what is going on in her life, but also able to take action.

“As for the response from the organizers? Quel surprise. I wasn’t surprised, I wasn’t shocked. I didn’t expect any different.

“But this is where this generation and I differ. Because when I see that, I think: ‘Yeah, she’s looking after herself, that’s the priority’.

“This generational is like: ‘She’s looking after herself, which is wonderful’. But then they are looking at the organisers and saying: ‘Where’s your responsibility in this?’ and that’s a very different dynamic.

“As for Simone, I’m kind of dismissive of the criticism of her because I’m just content with the fact that she’s looking after herself.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface with our knowledge about men’s adverse mental health issues anyway. Our knowledge of the way that it affects different demographics, different portions of our society differently isn’t even on the page.”

As the new Premier League season approaches, Carlisle fears a return of the toxic intensity which sees high-profile players lambasted for even being seen to laugh or smile in the hours or days after a negative result.

“In other high-pressure working environments, people are encouraged to try and leave work at work, to go home and decompress,” he said.

“Away from the pitch you are a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister.

“You need to allow yourself to rest and rejuvenate so that you’re ready to go again the next day. Elite sport is no different.

“But there seems to be a continuance of the comparison of industry to industry. So people will still say, even now: What right do you have to feel pressure or stress or emotional strain when there’s a nurse trying to save lives here?

“What right do you have to feel this, that or the other when there’s a teacher trying to teach our children through the pandemic?

“What right do you have when you’ve got a million pounds in the bank, and we’ve got single parents living at home?

“They still don’t understand that you can’t compare A with B with C as though one is more or less than the other.

“Every human being’s way of dealing with stress trauma is different from one person to the next. We have a long, long way to go.”

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