Football must heed Michael Johnson warning and overcome depression taboo

The 24-year-old has retired from the game after battling with the illness since bursting onto the scene as a talented teenager at Manchester City four years ago
By David Lynch

Michael Johnson should be lining up for Manchester City as they take on Fulham on Saturday as an England international and one of the Premier League’s biggest names. Should, but won’t.

Most football fans will be familiar with the picture of a bloated-looking Johnson which surfaced this week on social networking websites. The snapshot, one which was typically bereft of context, showed a man who did not resemble the once athletic midfielder who had been tipped for a bright future. Many struggled to believe that this 24-year-old could be the player whose star shone so brightly as he burst onto the scene as a teenager back in 2007.

As is so often the case in a fast-paced world where judgements are made before the truth is established, the figure in that sorry shot was the subject of derision. Sure, his injury woes were well publicised, but to get that out of shape was an unacceptable abuse of talent, according to many. Fast forward two days, and the tragic facts had emerged.

"Michael Johnson was a guy with a big talent and I am sad for this, sad for him."

- Roberto Mancini

In a short but insightful interview with the Manchester Evening News, Johnson revealed that his plight is one borne out of a battle with depression. He told the paper: "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."

Unfortunately, this brave admission did not facilitate a change in tact. Depression is a dirty word in elite sport, one which is still met with suspicion and misunderstanding. As Dr. Charles Willis-Owen, a British Medical Institute surgeon with expertise in psychology, told

"Depression is incredibly common, around one in ten people are affected and that’s no different for those in elite sport," he said. "If anything, in elite sport you are more likely to become depressed because you’re in this pressure cooker environment with the whole world watching you.

"I think the incidence of depression is very high but it’s very much under-reported and there’s quite a stigma attached to mental illness. It’s often brushed under the carpet and people don’t like to talk to about it.

"[Young players] are in an abnormal situation where they’re suddenly very wealthy and everyone’s interested in everything they do. And there’s a public perception that with all that money, life must be a bed of roses and what we tend to forget is that they’re under enormous scrutiny and enormous pressure."

Man City 2006-13 45 3
Leicester (loan) 2011-12 9 0
Incredibly, statistics provided by depression charity Mind suggest that one in every four people will experience mental health problems in any given year - these are figures which do not seem to tally with the rare public occurrences of such problems in football.

However, as one leading psychologist who has worked at Premier League level and wished to remain unnamed told, the culture of elite sports makes it difficult for athletes to publicly admit to facing any difficulties, and they very rarely attract sympathy given the incorrect assumptions regarding their lifestyle.

"Football culture is a masculine culture and I think that may have inhibited the use of psychologists in the past, or indeed being able to talk to people about how they are feeling." she said.

"I think there is still an element today of people thinking that if you go to see a psychologist there is something ‘wrong’ with you. This isn’t the case at all. If athletes can hone their physiological skills to the max then why shouldn’t they make the most of the psychological side?

"The lives that these players lead may seem glamorous from the outside looking in, but to live it is a totally different story. Most of these players love football. Eat, breathe and sleep football. That’s when the pressure gets too much, the pressure to succeed and the fear of failure. The uncertainty of it all. The superstar status. The media plucking them from relative obscurity and launching them into the limelight because they scored a goal at the weekend."
13/10 Man City are 13/10 with Paddy Power to beat Fulham with Mario Balotelli on the scoresheet this Saturday

The only positive is that this particular tale did not end like that of Robert Enke, the former Germany international who took his own life in 2009 after fighting the illness for six years. And thankfully, steps are already being taken in order to ensure that these incidences are dealt with more effectively, as our psychologist alluded to.

She added: "The introduction of the EPPP [Elite Player Performance Plan] will see a greater emphasis placed on psychology for these younger players so I think that’s a hugely positive step forward for both the athletes and football as a sport."

It can only be hoped that Johnson’s misfortune will prove to be a warning which the football authorities heed. This is a story of a gift wasted thanks to a system ill-prepared to take responsibility for the person behind the sort of talent which generates vast sums for those at the top. Quite simply, it must not be allowed to happen again.

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