Man bites dog: tell me things are changing…

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A fter such a ‘ta-dah!’ announcement of my blog, I have been pondering over what my first ‘proper’ blog entry should be. As a health journalist, I know that any given day offers up so much material by way of worthy mental health discussion topics, as well as all the soapbox issues that I’ve been racking up over the years. I’ve been thinking, “This could be a mental block moment, a stage fright scenario…”. I thought it might turn out to be a ‘gulp’ kind of day. But as it turns out, some of my ‘must-talk’ subjects have popped up in the news – mental health, work and public attitudes – and I’m off the starting blocks.

I’m no football fan, and although I most definitely earned my spurs traipsing round First Division grounds in my twenties with a boyfriend who sobbed on top of a 14 Routemaster bus when Derby County looked set for relegation, I’m still one of those tedious people who can’t grasp the offside rule. But a football-related story in today’s news interested me – the story of Manchester City’s Michael Johnson. Johnson, who was once tipped to play for England, was released by Man City before Christmas after they admitted they couldn’t handle his alcohol and gambling problems. It now transpires that he has spent time in a clinic and has, it would seem at least for the foreseeable future, quit football altogether.

Speaking to the Manchester Evening News, 24-year-old Johnson said, “I have been attending the Priory Clinic for a number of years now with regard to my mental health and would be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life.”

What strikes me about this is the apparent finality of it all – as I said, I’m something of a football dunce, but by all accounts Johnson was a rising star, on the crest of the wave (and other such football commentating cliches), but now he is someone who has had to cast his career aside and is pleading to trade stardom for peace. I get this need for peace – anyone who has had mental health issues probably will. The trouble is, I’m not sure if the wider world will get it, too.

According to the WHO (World Health Organisation) report, Mental Health and Work: Impact, Issues and Good Practices, five of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental problems, namely major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, alcohol use and obsessive compulsive disorders. If Johnson had been yanked off the pitch with a bone sticking out of his leg, a torn cruciate ligament or some other physical affliction, the world would probably ‘get it’ more than him taking his leave because of mental health problems.

The fact is, mental health problems are crippling, debilitating and disabling. And they can stop you working, not just to your optimal, but, at times, completely. They can halt you in your tracks when you’re in the middle of your finest work, when you are being given plaudits and awards, when things have never been better. They can cut you off in your prime. Paul Gascoigne springs to mind – I remember seeing him score a hat-trick at Whitehart Lane way back when and thinking how brilliantly talented he was (yup, even with my limited footballing know-how), only to read over the ensuing years about his addictions, his tragedies and, ultimately, his mental ill-health diagnoses (bipolar disorder and OCD, amongst others). He has become something of a national treasure now, an international treasure even, but it wasn’t so long ago that the headline in a national newspaper plonked next to a picture of him in evident crisis said, ‘Pitiful’. He may have earned shed-loads, frittered it away and challenged our collective sympathies in the process, but he was also very ill.

Of Johnson, critics have commented along the lines of, ‘Well, what do you expect when you give a young man £24k a week? Of course he’s going to go off the rails.’ But that is too simplistic and I reckon there’s more to it than that – I have a hunch that the profligacy and excess may be a symptom and an effect rather than the cause of his ill-health. Also, it smacks of the ‘Here is someone with everything – what does he have to worry about?’ mentality which is so often a barrier to acknowledging that someone needs help, not chiding.

Hopefully Johnson will get the help he needs, as Gascoigne has – his rhetoric and his transparency make me think he will. And I admire him enormously for coming out with it and saying, ‘I have a problem’, especially in a world that largely still doesn’t know how to handle revelations about mental health and thinks things that pertain to mental health are about ‘choice’ (a subject I shall be returning to, without a doubt).

I’m also guessing that the footballing world may not be hugely understanding of these kinds of often intangible health issues – please challenge me if you think I’m wrong. Tell me otherwise. When it comes to mental health matters, being proven wrong, the ‘man bites dog’ situations, is the stuff that changing attitudes are made of.

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Freelance journalist and mental health blogger, based in London UK

2 Responses to “Man bites dog: tell me things are changing…” Subscribe

  1. Fiona January 17, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    Martha brilliant blog. I totally get what you’re saying but for people to truly understand the impact of mental ill health requires them to either have experienced it first hand or to be intelligent (particularly emotionally so) and aware that unusual behaviours/attitudes of some often stem, through no fault of their own, from not have all the tools to deal with every situation maybe through upbringing or shocking experiences. For this ignorance to be combatted it needs people like you to keep talking about it and it needs that education to proliferate into more compassion from family, individuals and businesses – The old adage, “by the grace of God go I” is true, mental illness can happen to anyone. Great article.

    • martharoberts69 January 17, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

      Thanks, Fiona. I totally agree with you, especially where you say ‘through no fault of their own’. I’ll be writing about mental health and ‘choice’ at some point, probably soon (my bugbear is that people think it’s about ‘choice’ because it pertains to the brain and mind whereas it’s no more about choice as propensity to diabetes or heart disease is, in my opinion). I think that in itself is a massive barrier to people understanding it. In the meantime, I’ll keep banging on about it…

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