The exploitation of Gary Speed’s death

Details of the Wales manager’s suicide are unknown, yet it’s still being turned into a lesson about mental illness.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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At some point on Saturday night, 42-year-old Wales football manager Gary Speed took his own life. He is survived by his wife and their two teenage sons.

No one knows much more beyond those painfully sad facts (aside perhaps from his immediate family and friends). And there’s a strong chance we never will know much more. And why should we? There’s no reason why the details of such a horrific private tragedy should become public knowledge. Whatever did actually drive this successful, much-loved man to take his own life may forever lie within the bounds of the Speed family. A decision which they should be entitled to make.

The commentators and psychological professionals, rushing in to offer objective comment and analysis amid the often moving personal reminiscences and recollections, do at least seem to be nominally aware of their ignorance as to what actually happened. Some even recognise that public speculation is more than a little crass. It would be ‘both disrespectful and impertinent to try and diagnose Speed’s motives in apparently taking his own life’, wrote one Evening Standard columnist. Sue Baker, director of the mental health charity Time to Change, also said she didn’t have a clue as to what happened. ‘We don’t yet know the circumstances around the terrible tragedy of Gary Speed’s death’, she admitted.

In fact, wherever you encounter a piece of commentary on the whys and wherefores of Speed’s death, the provisos, the caveats and the back-covering statements of ignorance jump out at you. ‘All we know for now’, cautioned Oliver Kay of The Times (London), ‘is that a 42-year-old family man, with a brilliantly successful playing career behind him and a highly promising managerial career ahead of him, saw fit to take his life’.

But then it starts: no sooner has ignorance been confessed than assumption and prejudice are seemingly given free reign. So it is simply assumed that Speed was suffering from some form of depression. It is simply assumed that his life, as a footballer, was lacking in some sort of spiritual depth. And it is simply assumed that there are thousands more people out there just like the official version of Speed now emerging, outwardly happy but inwardly tortured. It has made for an unedifying spectacle. The absence of actual knowledge, the vacuum around which the analyses and commentaries are being frantically and speedily constructed, has sucked in some of the most retrograde of contemporary beliefs.

The worst culprits have been the mental health charities for which Speed’s death has been nothing short of a promotional opportunity. Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, quickly issued a statement declaring that ‘Gary Speed is not the first footballer to experience mental distress and nor, sadly, will he be the last. Sportsmen, like anyone else, are not immune from the devastating effects of mental health problems.’ In the Scotsman, the Samaritans’ head of communications Nicola Peckett spotted the chance to observe that ‘suicide can also affect people from more affluent backgrounds, who appear to be successful in their work and home lives’. As for Time to Change, Baker simply urged those who might be feeling like Speed (even though no one knows what or how Speed was feeling) to externalise their misery, to view themselves as suffering from a condition in need of treatment: ‘We want to encourage anyone experiencing similar levels of despair to try to speak to someone, whether friend, family or their doctor.’

Indeed, the problem for the mental health industry, it seems, is that too many people, especially in the still working-class profession of football, are unwilling to see themselves as suffering from anything mental-illness-related that requires the aid of ‘their doctor’. They don’t want to transform a negative feeling into a medical symptom. They don’t want to turn a subjective state into an object of therapeutic intervention. In short, they simply don’t want to talk about it. And it is this attitude, this refusal to spill all, that is not only being attacked as inhibiting the diagnosis of mental illness, but as exacerbating its prevalence. ‘Not talking about it’ and associated qualities of resilience and robustness are actually being demonised. Hence Farmer disparagingly refers to ‘the macho culture of football’, which ‘means we’ve seen very few professionals come forward to talk about mental-health problems’.

Speed’s death has been quickly transformed into something other than the private matter it ought to be. It has been turned into an example, a symbol of a society-wide problem that the mental-health industry will be all too happy to address. Not only is it simply assumed that Speed was suffering from depression, it is assumed that there are a lots of other men (professional sportstars or not) suffering similarly. The objective for which Speed is being used is clear. We are being encouraged to recognise and acknowledge depression – as Speed apparently did not – for the ubiquitous condition that the charities claim it is. That depression might not be as widely diagnosed as its campaigners claim, is not down its limited existence, but to our refusal to admit to its extensive existence. Hence Peckett’s refrain in her Scotsman article: ‘men tend to find it harder to talk about their feelings and express what might be going on in their lives and seek help’.

While mental-health charities have seized the opportunity afforded by Speed’s death to ‘raise awareness’ of mental illness, others have seen fit to vent their pseudo psycho-social criticism of Western materialism and consumerism. Here, the fact that Speed was a Premier League footballer comes into play. For in the caricatured imagination of the anti-consumerist, the modern-day footballer’s lifestyle, dripping with bling and housed in mock Tudor, is the very epitome of gratuitous consumption and soulless materialism. The fact that someone could have this life and not be happy is a veritable gift horse for commentators looking for evidence of what the psychologist Oliver James has called ‘affluenza’. ‘One thing we may conclude is that the “dream”… is no panacea’, wrote another Times columnist of Speed’s death in lieu, it should be noted, of anything actually resembling a conclusion. ‘Fame, money, glory and other superficialities so prized by modern society do not innoculate a person from deeper, more complex and more troubling facets of life.’ Incredibly then, despite nothing actually being known of the reasons behind Speed’s death, it is even being used by some as an indictment of the supposed emptiness at the heart of Western culture, dominated as it is by the ‘superficialities’ of ‘fame, money and glory’.

In the absence of any knowledge, then, in the absence of even the flimsiest of pretexts, the private tragedy of the Speed family has been given a public, awareness-raising function. A bit of old-fashioned respect might be more in order.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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