The Price of Stigma


It has been said that the fight against the generally felt stigma about those with mental illnesses is a vain fight. Particularly, there was an article I alluded to about a  month ago that comes to mind.

And this was one of the points that came to mind when considering Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who had been suffering with depression since 2003 who died by walking in front of a train on Tuesday and was, according to his widow, scared of his mental health difficulties becoming public as he felt he might lose his adopted daughter, Leila, after the death of their own child, Lara.

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I wonder how much the pressure of firstly being a public figure and well-known sportsman and secondly trying to keep hidden a depression that is obviously profound, added to the distress. Obviously enough for him to be driven to act.

His wife gave a deeply moving interview with the media which brought to light some of the pain that he and his family had been suffering and had been hiding from the glare of the media spotlight.

Teresa Enke said: “I tried to be there for him, said that football is not everything. There are many beautiful things in life. It is not hopeless. We had Lara, we have Leila.

“I always wanted to help him to get through it. He didn’t want it to come out because of fear. He was scared of losing Leila.

“It is the fear of what people will think when you have a child and the father suffers from depression. I always said to him that that is not a problem.”

Stigma, shame and misunderstanding of mental illness possibly are particularly burdensome in a ‘sporting’ environment where pressure is so intense and everything revolves around supreme conditioning of mind and body.

As the Times reports,  suicide is the highest cause of death for men under 45 in the UK. I wonder how much the gender perceptions that women are more likely to want to talk through things than men play in the role of treatments. Sometimes depression can be perceived as a ‘women’s disease’ and men may be  more likely to downplay the symptoms in general conversation until crisis level is reached.

So the general perceptions of mental illness and attitudes and assumptions about those who may suffer is not just thinking of terms of ‘the other’   – it is more than sympathy and empathy – it is about regarding seeking help and treatment for mental health in the same way that we might be guided to for physical health – and while I accept that it more likely to happen if you work in a supportive environment and have a strong network to support through difficulties, it might be more difficult in competitive environments that exist in the professional sporting circles. That makes it more painful, I would expect. Moving towards a more open discussion about mental illness has to be done for the sake of the societies and communities that we live in and work among.

In the meantime and for what it’s worth, I definitely have some positive thoughts towards Enke and his family and the pain that they have suffered and continue to.

2 thoughts on “The Price of Stigma

  1. This story made me feel so sad- and angry. Another life lost, another family bereaved, another profession deprived of a talented contributor. And because of what? Not the depression (although that obviously did play a part). But it was primarily the stigma and fear of discovery that killed him. And that is a very sad indictment on our modern ‘civilised’ world.

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