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Hunty's Column: Football And Mental Health

To mark Mental Illness Awareness Week, we revisit Johnny Hunt's first Tilehurst End piece.

FC Augsburg v FC St. Pauli - 2. Bundesliga Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

This is my first article for the Tilehurst End (hopefully not the last), a place at Elm Park where I spent many happy and not so happy times watching the Royals, but isn't that what being a fan is all about: the highs and lows of a game and of a season?

Sometimes I think it's the only sport where you can go through every life emotion in 90 minutes. From happiness to sadness, denial to anger and every other one in between. After the first league game of the season I'm sure that's even more true, which probably left the calmest of fans reaching for the Valium during 96 minutes of drama, frustration and finally despair at the missed penalty.

For my debut article I decided to look at a subject close to my heart and head. Mental health in our great game linked to the Royals. I'm not jumping on the band wagon, I talk from personal experience of dealing with mental health issues personally and professionally whilst having a decent nursing career for 20 years.

In recent years we have had the highly publicised suicides of top footballers Gary Speed, Robert Enke, Dave Clement, Justin Fashanu and the ongoing battles to maintain mental health of Paul Gascoigne, Stan Collymore, Clarke Carlisle and Kenny Sansom to name but a few.

The national media are all over it and use the terms 'psycho' and 'nutter' in such a degrading way you would think that we were still living in the 80s. Music wise I still am, but I've come to terms with the fact that sadly no one else is! Sky News recently even used Clarke Carlisle's drink driving offence as a headline whilst he recovered from a recent suicide attempt.

From experience, when you're not well you make some of the most stupid decisions of your life and don't realise quite how annoying you are until a long time after! Nobody's perfect but it doesn't mean we are horrible people. We screw up like everyone else! I'm sure everyone knows someone who has been affected by mental illness either directly or through friends and family. It's never going away and sadly there is no instant fix.

Footballers are no different to you or I, or the person you sit next to every week at a match. Regardless of how much money you have, or how many goals you score, or in Reading's case don't score (!), anyone can have a mental illness. We are all as vulnerable as each other. In other sports for example, the battles of cricketer Marcus Trescothick are clearly documented and supported by the majority of the public. Football and it's players seem to be portrayed differently, as if they are almost immune from it due to the fact they earn a lot of money and that's what to blame.

Many illnesses are thankfully short term, such as a bout of depression triggered by a personal event or the modern pressures of life. Some are far more serious and debilitating such as schizophrenia.

In this article from 2013 it's claimed more than 150 footballers are in jail and 700 players in their 20s were without a club at the end of the 2013 season, which I'm sure would have risen in the past couple of years. Imagine being told your career is over before it has or hardly begun. The effects must be shattering. What happens to these players? How many are affected by mental health issues? A further study reported that up to 42% of 121 ex-players interviewed had suffered with some form of mental health issue since retiring.

Being a Reading fan should come with a free prescription for anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication, but in fact one in four people will suffer some mental health issue sometime during their life. So in a average crowd of 20,000 at the Madejski Stadium, 5,000 of those will have been affected by a mental health issue at some point during their lives - quite staggering really. So in a team of 11 players you would guess that possibly two or three of those would have issues at some time.

There are so many good organisations out there doing great work in the grassroots of the game such as Mental Health Football UK. Which leads me to the story of Paul Cannovile, a groundbreaking player back in the dark days of the 1980s where racism was rife in the game. He was the first black player to play for Chelsea and after an injury, ended up at Reading.

His story may sound familiar - a talented footballer falls on hard times after his career ends too early. But this is a guy who hit rock bottom and bounced back. Sky Sports showed an interesting documentary called Black & Blue: The Paul Canoville Story, and if you get a chance to see it, it makes valuable viewing. Here's the trailer:

To be abused by the opposition fans is one thing, but by your own when you haven't even stepped on to the pitch is another. Even ex-Reading Women player Fran Kirby copped flak for scoring for Chelsea Ladies on her debut and this is a girl who bounced back from depression after her mum died a few years ago to reach the top of her game.

These are inspiring people who have bounced back from tough times in their lives and I'm sure you all know someone who has done the same. Look out for your mates and fellow fans; and just take a second before you hurl abuse at a player who's struggling. There may be other reasons than football!

Enjoy the season :)

This article originally appeared on The Tilehurst End in August 2015 - you can find it here.