Tony Dewhurst talks to Kevin Ellison about his mental health, the help he received from the PFA and how he hopes to help other players.
KEVIN Ellison says the Professional Footballers’ Association helped him overcome his darkest hour after he opened up on his struggles with depression.
The English Football League’s second oldest player at 41 tells Tony Dewhurst why he is considering becoming a counsellor himself once his playing career ends.
"ON the pitch I was a big, horrible, bald-headed Scouser, and to my opponents Kevin Ellison was a tough, unflinching rival.
"In the Morecambe dressing room, I was a larger than life character, a prankster and a joker, but I became an actor through my depression.
"At Morecambe, I wore that mask for ten, long years.
"It was my way of covering up my insecurities, fears and the internal struggles going on in my life.
"My only medication was when I stepped over that line to play football every Saturday.
"That was my way of forgetting about all my issues and problems and from the Premier League to League Two, sadly there will be players who are not opening up about their mental well-being.
"I’ve seen them, talked to them, hugged them and cried with them.
"I’ve witnessed the other side too, players who have retired and lost the structure of their lives through drink, drugs and gambling.
"I didn’t want to go down that road and that’s why I reached out to the Professional Footballers’ Association for help.
"It was so hard to make that call, but it was a massive relief to unburden myself.
"I get judged every time I play football, but this was a different type of judgement and I’m very grateful to my union.
"But through Gordon Taylor, Simon Barker and the wonderful staff at the PFA they made sure I received proper help and care.
"Talking to a counsellor about my anxieties and depression, I came through my darkest hour and I learned new coping mechanisms.
"Maybe if I had spoken about how devastating it was, I’d never have reached the situation I found myself in for half of my career.
"Now I want to help others and via a counselling course, which I have been studying separately through the PFA, one day I will be able to be actively involved with people who are struggling with poor mental health.
"Because of what has happened to me I have a passion for helping other people.
"There’s still a massive stigma surrounding mental health in football and I was 38 before I spoke out.
"But when I did, I got a massive response from my fellow professionals.
"So why did it take me so long?
"Football can be a very unforgiving and brutal environment to be in.
"Once, at another club, I was out injured.
"The manager walked past me and said: ‘You’re no use to me like that – you are dead wood.’
"It was bad enough being injured, but I thought is that what you really think of people.
"Even today, if a player went into a manager’s office somewhere and said: ‘Gaffer, my head’s not right,’ then I think that they would see it as a sign of weakness.
"It could be held against you, and it creates a dilemma for the manager: whether he picks you for a big game or awards a new contract.
"The manager needs three points on a Saturday, but surely it is in a club’s interest to help that player get better and I don’t think the football hierarchy grasp that.
"Before I contacted the PFA I attended anger management classes.
"There were people there from all backgrounds, including hard, amateur boxers and cage fighters, all struggling with mental health issues.
"I didn’t understand what I was going through then, that I was depressed.
"I called it my ‘dark cloud time’. I was angry and snappy with the kids and shouted about inconsequential stuff.
"My moods were like a light switch flicking on and off and that was hard on my family to understand.
"One of the PFA counsellors suggested I meditate and do yoga.
"The Professional Footballers’ Association also gave me free access to a meditation App called Headspace.
"I know that hundreds of players contacted them during the coronavirus lockdown wanting to access it.
"The meditation is aimed to make you a better human being and it has helped me become a kinder dad to my children because it has brought me some peace.
"If I don’t meditate regularly then I don’t feel as healthy as I’m not able to process my thoughts as well.
"I was heart-broken when Liverpool let me go aged 14, but six years later I made my league debut for Leicester City in the Premier League against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
"I came off the pitch with Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Jaap Stam - and I thought about the day I got £25 travelling expenses to play for Southport on a Bank Holiday at Halifax.
"I was paying them to play but that’s how desperate a skinny kid from Liverpool was to be a footballer.
"Football has given me a good life - but if you’re a player struggling with anxiety or depression, please don’t hesitate to contact the Professional Footballer’s Association because it changed my life."
It is important that all former and current players, are aware there is help available during these unprecedented times. Your health and wellbeing remain our utmost priority. To access private and confidential support and services:
24hr counselling helpline: 07500 000 777
The PFA have also set up a dedicated email for any enquires in relation to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic: firstname.lastname@example.org