365 MentalHealth800

Jason Brown played in the Premier League but over recent years has struggled with depression and anxiety, and now wants to become a counsellor

13 July ~ “Of late, when it gets really on top of me, the thought of taking my own life becomes more rational.”

Jason Brown is a former goalkeeper who had Premier League experience with Blackburn Rovers and won caps for Wales Under-21s. Now 35, he has found himself under-employed and lacking direction since quitting professional football in 2015.

Throughout our conversation at a cafe in north London, he speaks slowly as he works his way through his emotions. “Before it was very much an irrational thought, driven by fear. Now I think, maybe it is time. Maybe I have served my purpose.” I spoke to Brown two weeks after Everton winger Aaron Lennon was detained under the mental health act by police and taken to hospital after an incident in early May.

Michael Bennett, the head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers’ Association, says that he has received 11 new requests for help from players following Lennon’s case; amid an outpouring of sympathy for the former England player. Bennett, who oversees a team of more than 100 counsellors as part of his role, thinks attitudes to mental health are changing in the sport and in society as a whole.

“We don’t want to use Aaron’s misfortune to highlight the work the PFA does,” he tells me. “But we want to show that he is a person who plays football. He goes through all the issues we all go through and he needs support like anyone else.” Brown has been one of the people at the forefront of those changing attitudes. Since retiring, he’s spoken openly about his battle with depression and anxiety. Two years ago, a succession of events turned his life around. His father and uncle died, and then his marriage broke down. In the midst of all this, he decided he did not want to keep playing.

He found himself living back at his mother’s house in south-east London. Friends, who would call frequently when he was playing, now did not pick up the phone. After a 15-year career, he was back at square one, having to confront the issues and memories he had spent his adult life avoiding.

Memories such as how, in 2011, his friend and international manager Gary Speed committed suicide. Brown pauses and almost wells up at the mention of it.

At 18, he watched as his team-mate at Charlton Athletic, Pierre Bolangi, drown during a training session. Bolangi, along with a group of youth players, was taking part in an endurance exercise on Aldershot common, led by Dean May from the Army School of Physical Training. After almost an hour of running, the players were instructed to swim across a lake. Former Charlton player Chris Taylor later told the Winchester Crown Court during May’s 2002 trial for manslaughter that some of the players could not swim.

Taylor said: “I heard one of my friends shout ‘where’s Bolangi?’. There were arms waving everywhere and a wall of splashing. I could see people going under and coming back up and grabbing each other.” May was found guilty of manslaughter and fined £1,500. Brown says that group counselling was arranged for those present at the incident, but it was rarely discussed by his team-mates and, anyway, he had to focus on his career. Released by Charlton shortly after Bolangi’s death, he went on to play 126 games for Gillingham over the next five years.

Ten years earlier, aged eight, he had arrived at his mother’s friend’s home to find her hanging in the living room. Eight was also the age he decided to become a footballer. “I used to practise relentlessly,” he remembers. “I didn’t have many friends. My two best friends were a ball and a wall. Everything else fell to the side. That’s how you live your life as an athlete. You know stuff is going on, but you have to block it out. Nothing can deter you from where you want to go. But as I got older, it became harder to block things out.”

Brown has now been in therapy for two years. Someday, he wants to become a counsellor himself. This ambition is one of the things that keeps him going, along with his three kids, the oldest of whom turned 11 a couple of days after our conversation. “I’m fortunate. I have a legacy. My children, my children’s children, will be able to read about me when I’m gone. Now I want to leave a legacy by helping people, by bringing people out of this stigma. That’s what I would like to do.”

“But every day is a battle,” he continues. “There are days when I sit there and I have that conversation with myself: can I get through another day? I’ve worked my whole life, since the age of 14, so now I don’t know what to do with myself day-to-day. I feel very lonely. I know who Jason Brown the athlete is: he’s mentally strong, confident. But I don’t know who I am as a person, and that’s what I’m trying to work out. I’m 35 and I still don’t know who I am.” Joe Sandler Clarke

This article first appeared in WSC 365, July 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here

Illustration by Ben Tallon

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