On mental illness and being a football fan

I’ve been going to the football regularly since I was 17 years old, first to watch my hometown club Tranmere Rovers and in recent years, with my children, to watch our adopted club, Brighton & Hove Albion (Seagulls!) We’ve lived in Brighton for 10 years and for the first time in my life, I’ve had the resources to buy a season ticket. We have a shiny new ground, great facilities and helpful stewards and the atmosphere is usually positive and friendly. The kids feel confident and at home. The pies are good! The beer is ok! Being part of something — belonging to a tribe — is a great feeling. The thing is, I can usually manage to go to matches (and deal with the awful crowded train journey to get there) precisely because I know what to expect and have done this journey dozens of times.

I’ve experienced depressive episodes since the mid 1980s (well before I started going to football matches) but found it hard to ask for professional help which would “label” me. Eighteen months ago, I finally spoke to my GP about what was happening with my mental health and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. That winter, I was struggling at work, suffering from some worrying physical symptoms and couldn’t stop crying. I’ve since made some big changes, including leaving that job, starting on anti-depressants and going to counselling. During that time, I’ve had several months of feeling pretty great, a couple of brief set backs and, at the moment, I am unwell and, once again, struggling.

When I am depressed, or starting to get better again, activities that I normally enjoy seem impossible to even contemplate. I am tired all the time. Small practical difficulties make going places and seeing people IMPOSSIBLE and not even worth trying because it will ALL GO WRONG and be a disaster. So, if at all possible, I stay under the duvet or on the sofa. And then I miss out on the things I love and slip into feeling jealous and abandoned by my friends who are more able to get out there and have fun.

I really wanted to go to Brighton’s play off against Sheffield Wednesday and to be part of something historic. I wanted to be at a football match with my children and my partner, which isn’t always possible because he’s away for work a lot. They wanted me to be there. But I didn’t think I would manage.

Allowing for the possibility that I wouldn’t go and that my partner would be okay with that really helped. So did meeting him at the house so we could all travel together. I had something to eat at the ground but my partner queued up for it so that I could sit quietly in my seat before kick-off.

The atmosphere was almost overwhelming. I’ve found that when I’m unwell, sounds are louder and smells are more intense and a huge, happy, excited football crowd was like everything turned up to 11. I leapt to my feet less than I would usually and when we scored, I was stunned then a bit tearful because, heh, my emotions are all over the place at the moment. The game was exciting and I’m glad I went, despite the eventual result.

I don’t know if there’s anything football clubs could do to better support fans with mental health difficulties. I can follow my team(s) because I’m usually fine and when I’m not, I have friends and family to lean on. But maybe others don’t.

I recently read a fantastic article about initiatives by train operators to support passengers with anxiety. I wonder if football could learn something from them.

Brighton & Hove Albion 1–1 Sheffield Wednesday

Mental Health Awareness Week 2016 #MHAW16

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