Lenihan: 'I just couldn’t escape my own mind'

Brian Lenihan, Hull City

On the morning of December 15, 2017, Brian Lenihan, the Hull City defender, drove to his local chapel to say a prayer, then returned to his car and consumed what he hoped would be enough tablets to end his own life. What led the 23-year-old Irishman to that tragic juncture -- a scene harrowing and heart breaking in equal measure -- is not straightforward, but depression never is.

Injuries were a catalyst. A feeling of despair, of endeavours without reward, of unfulfilled potential, burrowed away in his mind. And tragically, that “downward spiral”, he says, ultimately left him feeling that there was no other way out.

“I just couldn’t escape my own mind, which is quite a scary thing for anyone who’s experienced that, because there’s literally no reprieve from it,” Lenihan says. “Football wasn’t going to plan for me and I felt like that was my whole life and everything I’d worked for since I was young. My illness got worse and worse and ultimately led to me attempting to take my life.

“I took a massive overdose. When I woke up in the hospital I didn’t really know where I was. That was one or two o’clock in the morning and I had taken the tablets at around ten o’clock that morning. They gave me counteractive drugs; I think they pumped my stomach. I was told that I had to go to the Priory in Altrincham or I was going to be sectioned. It was kind of a ‘You can go of your own freewill or we’ll make you go.’”

The next few months are vague. “I don’t really remember much of being in the hospital, people I met, anything like that,” he says. “I was saying stuff to my family that wasn’t making sense. If I’m being completely honest I think I remember about three whole days of being in that hospital, and I was there three months.”

Among his treatments were 12 sessions of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), in which electric currents are passed through the brain to trigger a brief seizure. “I do remember being on the table and waiting for the anaesthetist to put in the anaesthetic; I have vague memories of that,” he says. “It was just a really strange time and I don’t know whether my mind has blocked that out because it was painful, or whether it was the fact that I suffered some memory loss from the ECT. I’m not really sure. But either way, I don’t mind, because I don’t really want to think back to that time.”

Lenihan called a premature end to a career of rich promise that began at College Corinthians in his home county of Cork, then progressed to the League of Ireland with Cork City, and saw Hull pay a fee of £200,000 for the 20-year-old in August 2014.

A loan move to Blackpool the following November yielded his Championship debut against Leeds United at Elland Road. In his second game, however, against Bolton Wanderers, Lenihan injured his patella tendon, which required surgery and saw him sidelined for the next eight months.

He was soon forced to go under the knife again to repair a hernia, after which post-viral syndrome left him unable to train or play for four months. And those set-backs meant he had to wait until April 2016 to make his Hull City debut, against Bolton at the Macron Stadium. Two days later, Lenihan’s knee gave way again and after enduring another twelve months of arduous, painful, solitary hours of rehabilitation, Lenihan’s health began to deteriorate.

“I think I was so unlucky with injuries that when I finally got back I expected all the luck in the world, and when [opportunities] didn’t materialise I just felt at such a loss,” he says. “I felt like football chewed me up and spat me out, and I think that, ultimately, is what led my illness leading me to do what that I did.

“Football was all I ever wanted to do, but I kind of felt let down by it if I’m honest. Don’t get me wrong, I met some amazing people, but football as a whole, it just wasn’t for me, which was quite difficult for me to accept because it’s all I ever wanted to do. It’s kind of a contradiction, but that’s how I felt.”

Lenihan will be one of a number of guest speakers at the PFA’s Injured.Two mental health and emotional well-being conference taking place at St George’s Park on Wednesday October 3rd. The gathering of health-care providers from football clubs around the country is in its second year and aims to examine how a more integrated approach to mental health in football can be developed.

More than ever players are feeling willing and able to reveal their struggles with depression and Lenihan hopes speaking candidly about his issues may encourage others to seek support. “My hope would be that people would be able to ask for help when they need it, because I didn’t and it has changed the course of my life,” he says.

“It’s affected my family too and probably still is today. My parents went to almost every single game I played since I was five years of age, travelling around Ireland and Europe to watch me. And for all of that to end like this, that’s been quite difficult for them.

“But, like my girlfriend, I think more than anything they’re just happy that I’m still here and starting to get my life back on track. Obviously it’s been a big change. But I’m happy outside of football. I just believe for one reason or another football wasn’t right for me.

“My girlfriend Bailey is pregnant and we’re expecting a baby boy in January. It’s a real gift, for me and for us, and I feel lucky because I mightn’t have been here to have that experience in life. It’s something to work towards and to live for. I’m not saying I’m just living for that, but it changes your perspective.”

The PFA’s has been in regular contact with Lenihan throughout his recovery and will continue to offer support as he embarks on the next chapter in his life. “When I came out of hospital, I knew they were there,” he says. “That’s the same across the board for most people I’ve come in contact with in football. Counselling, educational stuff, I know down the line that’s an avenue I might go down and I know the PFA will be there to help if I do decide to do that, and that’s very reassuring.

“I would like to stay in the football world because I do still have an interest in it. If I could turn my experience into something positive, or help other players, I would be open to doing that. I don’t have any problems speaking about what happened. I think people who are suffering might be able to relate to some of the experiences I’ve had. I suppose I don’t want them to make the same mistakes as I did. I like to think I would be quite good at it. And if I could help other people I would like to.”

Getting support via the PFA…

The PFA provides members with a 24/7 counselling telephone helpline. This 'round-the-clock' support is available to all members past and present.

All services are private and confidential, PFA members (or concerned friends and family) can contact the PFA: