We invited 20 people, who’ve benefited from the work of our partners at Heads Together and other mental health charities, to St. George’s Park to see the Three Lions squad in training and enjoy a Christmas lunch.
What the guests didn’t know was that their waiters for the day would be none other than members of Gareth’s Southgate’s England squad, who sat down to talk about mental health and football.
And as the group shared their stories and found more things in common than they ever thought, we found out more about the day from three people who were invited.
Ian Darler, Cambridge
It was a such a nice surprise. When I entered the world of mental health, which came after a serious accident, the last thing I ever thought was that I’d find myself at St. George’s Park meeting the England players along with an amazing group of people who’ve all been through similar situations.
I had no idea what was coming! But I think everybody sitting around the table was appreciative of each other, there are various things which relate to different forms of mental health and it was like a big counselling session with everybody’s views being the same.
I’ve been involved in professional football myself for 41 years, after starting in 1979 as the youngest head groundsman in the Football League at Cambridge United and since then, I’ve moved to be the stadium manager and matchday safety officer.
The invite came because I had a book published at the end of July which was about 40 years of my career in the game but one chapter in particular hit home with a lot of people in the media and that was chapter 11, entitled ‘Life Changing’.
That was because I went through four years of absolute hell after a serious accident at work which involved having seven hospital procedures and that led to depression and then being diagnosed with PTSD.
Off the back of the last lot of surgery, I got a serious infection which kept me off work for seven months and every time I was off antibiotics, the infection came back.
It got to the point where my easy option out of life was to end it. Thankfully, when I was thinking about it, something came along family-wise which made me think: ‘What are you thinking about man? You’ve got a lovely young family and a lot of people around to support you.’
I made the decision to go to a doctor and things started to change, although it was a very long journey. I’ve had the best part of two years of treatment with a psychiatry team and psychologists and I’m very grateful to them all.
If you think you’ve got an issue developing with your mental health, don’t suffer in silence, you need to ask the questions.
And if you’ve got someone close to you who is suffering, ask if they are alright. And don’t just ask once, ask twice, because it’s so easy to dismiss. If you ask a second time, sometimes you get a reaction…
There was a lad who’d worked for me for a number of years and when I returned to work I discovered that he’d had a car crash and I went to him and asked if he was ok.
He said, ‘yeah, yeah, I’m ok’. I asked again, ‘are you really ok?’ and he then burst into tears and told me he tried to kill himself in the car by putting it in a ditch.
I just gave him some advice about what I’d been through and where I’d received treatment and he followed the same steps. In May this year he came to see me at the stadium and put his arms around me and said that I’d saved his life.
So if there’s one good thing that comes out of talking about it, it’s making sure that you’re trying to help other people.
Paul McGregor, London
It was just nice to spend time and talk to people, especially footballers, about mental health.
It exceeded my expectations by just having a conversation with them. Obviously you try to see them as a fellow human being, but at the same time they all had a level of maturity and were open enough to talk about mental health as well, which was very surprising to me.
What I loved about it was that we all sat at a table, none of us really knew each other and straight away, your guard is up as you don’t know who the person is or why they’re here.
But as soon as one person shares, the next person shares, everyone shares and the next person is a footballer who shares as well.
Your whole ego just disappears and now you can talk openly about it.
Players like Harry Winks and Tammy Abraham, there were a few who I spoke to and what surprised me was the level of their mindset to get to that level.
Talent is one thing, but mentality is so important. Harry Winks is just 23 and he was talking about perspective and how he deals with social media, when I was 23, my mindset wasn’t there.
I like the link between football and mental health, it’s getting people to talk in an environment that you probably wouldn’t expect to be talking about mental health.
I lost my dad to suicide ten years ago and obviously in dealing with the grief, I went through my own periods of depression.
It was then that I started to share my own story and my dad’s on social media and it led me to do a lot of talks and work with different charities and one of those is Heads Together.
It’s just really focused on men, who are three times more likely to take their own lives, it’s the biggest killer of men under 50 and even though I experienced that in 2009, I didn’t know those stats until two or three years ago when I was exposed to it.
The more we can do to get men talking is going to be huge for men in general.
Jon Salmon, London
I was really surprised when the door opened and the players walked in with the dinners and just sat down with us, I was a bit star struck to be honest.
What was surprising on my table was the footballers saying that they’d learned something, because the conversations just opened up around the table and there was a lot of listening as well as talking going on.
The conversations really varied as well, we were talking about the racism that's been going on and the personal abuse that players have been experiencing and how they deal with that on and off the pitch.
Even though we were meeting for Christmas dinner and having some food, all of the discussions around the table were impacting on all of us through all of the different stories.
To hear an England footballer say to you that something I’d said had made them think about a friend who might not be talking so much or not dealing very well with something, was special. It’s not a negative to talk about things which might be going wrong in your life.
It was quite surprising for the players to get up afterwards, shake your hand and say ‘thanks very much, that really helped me out’.
We wouldn’t have heard that from an England squad ten years ago, so it’s really encouraging.
It’s now about continuing that conversation and the millions of people that will reach and the role the players have in breaking down that stigma is massive.
For me, in 2017, I ran the London Marathon to raise awareness of mental health as I’d lost my dad to suicide when I was younger and a good friend of mine who I did the marathon with had lost his sister to post-natal depression in 2016.
What’s lovely about this is that we’re now in 2019 and going into 2020 so it wasn’t just a campaign for the London Marathon, it’s really got legs and is focusing on football which is really male dominated.
When Heads Together came along, it really did start a national conversation that we all have mental health.
And the message of Heads Up can get out there to a male audience to say that it is alright to talk about your emotions, we’ve all got mental health and the fact the FA is doing so much to push this at all levels of football is incredible.”
The Three Lions’ international fixture against Italy on Friday 27 March has been dedicated to the Heads Up campaign, as The FA and Heads Together look to create the biggest ever conversation around mental health.HEADS UP: FIND OUT MORE