Clarke Carlisle: ‘Nobody dreams mental illness will be a part of their life’

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On paper, Premier League footballer Clarke Carlisle had it all. Fame, fortune, family, with a glittering career and a 
bright future. But behind a crooked smile, he was battling a nightmare of deepest depression. RUBY KITCHEN reports.

“I wholly believed that if I was to die, everybody in my life would be better off. That my ex-wife would be relieved, that my parents wouldn’t have to be ashamed. That they could all get on with their lives without the burden that was ‘Clarke Carlisle’.

Clarke Carlisle.

Clarke Carlisle.

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I stepped out in front of a 10-tonne truck. Not only did I survive, I didn’t break a bone in my body.

Clarke Carlisle

YP Comment: Mental health: Speak out now. Country confronts its demons

“I stepped out in front of a 10-tonne truck. Not only did I survive, I didn’t break a bone in my body.”

In December 2014, two days before Christmas, Clarke attempted suicide, walking out onto the carriageway of the A64 near his home in York. It wasn’t a cry for help.

In the depths of depression, after years of spiralling despair, he had decided to end it all. So trapped was he within the black hole that he couldn’t see how he was worth anything at all.

“That’s how warped my thinking had become,” the 37-year-old said.

“It was a firmly-held belief that this was the right thing to do. It was as real as one-plus-one equals two.

“Nobody can ever dream or think that mental illness will be a part of their life. The sad fact is, that unless your life has been touched by mental health, it’s still very much unknown.

“I know from my own journey. I’m one of the statistics who has suffered. But the statistics don’t tell the full story.”

Clarke Carlisle, the former Leeds United player and chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, was once dubbed the nation’s most intelligent footballer.

Opening up to The Yorkshire Post as part of Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), he is articulate, frank, and measured. He is also brutally honest.

“I’ve made decisions that have radically impacted and changed other people’s lives,” he said.

“The butterfly effect of mental illness impacts on millions of lives every day.

“For the driver that day, Darren Rees, my actions changed his life and that of his family. Chris Kilbride, the first person to come to me, took his own life months later.

“I feel the deepest of sympathies for their families, for what they are going through.”

His attempt that day was the second time he had tried to take his own life. The first was when, as an England Under 21s footballer, he had suffered a serious injury and was told he may struggle to walk again without aids.

“I drank myself into oblivion,” he said simply. “In that haze, I took an overdose and waited for the inevitable.”

Fortunately, he was taken to hospital. While his life was saved, it was only the beginning.

“I didn’t do anything about it,” he said. “I didn’t talk to my family. I just boxed it off. I know now that’s where it began.”

Over the next 10 years, he would fall into a cyclical pattern of destructive behaviour. By 2010, he was in a bad way. One evening, looking up post-natal depression for his now ex-wife after the birth of their child, he recognised some of the symptoms.

He went to the club doctor, but despite being offered help and medication, he didn’t keep up with treatment.

“I felt I was more of a man if I could cope without them,” he said. “Even though it was 2010, there still wasn’t that holistic understanding.”

His retirement, in 2013, sparked a “deepening spiral”. His attempt the following year to end his life was a trigger point on the road to recovery.

In the six weeks he spent afterwards in the Cygnet hospital in Harrogate, he began to see a way out.

“I’ve learned that I’m responsible for me,” he said. “Nobody else is responsible for my mental health.

“I’ve learned that I actively have to take part. I can only make progress if I’m brutally honest, especially with myself.

“It has been incredibly difficult for my family. There’s an acute fear, still, that I’ll go down that path again.

“We’ve had to go on a learning journey together – with absolute honesty. They’ve had to trust, when I say I’m good, and when I say I’m not.”

The hardest thing, he said, was in discussing it with his children.

“Trying to explain as a concept, that I didn’t want to be here, brings up all kinds of feelings for them, of abandonment, and that I didn’t want to be here for them.

“I found that if I take emotion out of it, and talk to them about health and illness, in clear fundamentals, they take it on board.

“We now really openly speak about our emotions on a daily basis. That’s OK. I believe that I’m raising some very emotionally literate children.”

Attitudes are changing towards ill mental health, he says, and people are more prepared than ever to listen. But while it’s a vast improvement, he says, it’s one from a terrible position, of absolute ignorance and denial.

“There’s still a long way to go,” he said. “Fifty per cent of mental health problems are in situ by the age of 14. We have to provide our young people with coping mechanisms to deal with this.”

As part of his work with the Clarke Carlisle Foundation, he is campaigning for better education for children.

“Something as simple as mental health education in school can alleviate 50 per cent of the pressure on adult mental health services.

“Things are changing, for the better, but we’re still in a position where funding for mental health services is non-existent. The extent of research is nowhere near adequate. The whole system has to change.

“Mental health problems are everywhere. Yes, in sport, but also in journalism, in teachers. There’s this ‘stiff upper lip’ British mentality, that you don’t divulge anything might be perceived as weak.

“Unless that changes, we are not going to get people coming forward and we will eventually get to the stage where we’re putting out fires.”

* If you are struggling to cope, call Samaritans free on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website. Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope.

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YP Comment: Mental health: Speak out now. Country confronts its demons