AP Interview: Depression hits when soccer career ends

LONDON — On the training pitches at Arsenal is where Jason Brown feels at peace. Coaching academy players, the retired goalkeeper feels unburdened of the mental anguish.

"This is my distraction," Brown, who played internationally for Wales and in the Premier League for Blackburn, told The Associated Press. "I honestly feel if I didn't have this distraction (at Arsenal) I might not be having this conversation with you right now."

Instead, Brown is hoping to combat any stigma still attached to those in soccer with mental health issues by speaking out about the depression that struck as his playing career came to an end in 2015.

Like many professional athletes, Brown reveled in the adulation of fans in packed stadiums and the elevated status he held in the local community. He also craved the structure in his life: Training, rest, matches.

"As silly and naive as it might sound you never think there is going to be an end," the 34-year-old Brown recalled. "You never think when you retire what it is going to be like."

Then the limelight did fade. No longer was there a routine to follow. And the psychological issues mounted for a player who said he previously never encountered symptoms during his professional career.

"I suffer from depression and it's nothing to be embarrassed about," Brown states frankly. "I'll never be cured."

Now it is about trying to cope. A few months ago Brown felt he could not while in his car on a motorway near London.

"That probably the lowest I was ... the first real time that I made an attempt to actually, where I considered just killing myself," Brown said. "I was so down. I was driving along the M1 and I put my foot down and I didn't take my foot off. And I then I realized that it's not only me I that I am going to be hurting but possibly others. That was a real low, low day my life."

It was also part of an acceptance that he needed professional help . Then sitting with his counsellor in October, came a profound and important moment in his post-playing life.

"It sounds crazy. I still had the mentality, 'I am a footballer,'" Brown said. "It didn't sink and one day it did sink in, sitting with my counsellor ... and I realized I am no longer a football player anymore. It was quite surreal because all I have known and seen myself as is a football player."

Brown isn't alone. It's just that few footballers feel comfortable publicly discussing depression or even seeking help in private. England's Professional Footballers' Association is trying to break that taboo, hoping to convince their members that talking about mental health problems is not a sign of weakness but strength.

"We want to change that mindset," said Michael Bennett, the PFA's head of welfare. "It's important for players to talk about the emotional side of things."

Welsh players including Brown had to deal with the distress of national team manager Gary Speed dying of hanging in 2011. A coroner later ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove that Speed had committed suicide. In 2009, Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke ended his life by stepping in front of a train.

"We as football have a duty of care," said Bennett, whose union backed the #TimetoTalk Day in Britain last week. "We spend a lot of time on the physical aspects of things for the players. I think we need to spend more time on the emotional side. If a player has emotional issues it doesn't matter how fit they are mentally, if they are not in the right place they can't perform."

And times are changing. Bennett points to the outpouring of support and sympathy last year for the survivors of sexual abuse he helped. They received private counselling through the PFA, and support in their decision to waive their anonymity to raise awareness of the crimes going on football and the suffering of victims.

Going public with mental health problems is not an obligation, with the PFA assuring members of complete confidentiality.

"There are concerns at times, 'Where is this information going, will it go back to the club and will it affect me playing?" Bennett said.

Brown turned to the PFA after searching for help online at 3 a.m. one day after struggling to cope with depression that was exacerbated by the breakup of his marriage as he retired from playing in 2015 and his father dying.

"You become very paranoid, you become very anxious, you don't know who to trust," said Brown, a father-of-three. "It got so bad when I didn't sleep for five days on the trot. I just had no sleep.

"I wasn't eating. I lost a lot of weight ... I went on this crazy health kick that you would probably associate with someone who was anorexic."

Brown has a message for active and retired footballers needing help with their emotional wellbeing and coping with life after their playing careers end.

"Don't feel that you are weak. It makes you far from weak," Brown said. "Someone who is willing to admit they have a problem is stronger than any type of person who is preparing for a competition.

"With my depression what I'm trying to make people aware of is: Don't be ashamed. There are more people who have depression ... you can live with it."

It's led Brown to a job coaching Arsenal's emerging talent .

"My work colleagues are very supportive," Brown said. "I openly speak about everything I have been through because that's part of my job and what I want to do — try to help people."


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Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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