BOTH the football and media industries have an equal responsibility to enlighten players and fans about the effects and treatment of depression in the sport, according to former Swindon Town striker Vincent Pericard.
The 31-year-old, whose time at the County Ground was spent in the deepest depths of a very personal struggle with the illness – to the point at which he considered taking his own life – is leading the calls for more to be done to educate everyone involved in the game about the disease.
Pericard’s company, Elite Welfare Management (EWM), was conceived from the feeling of hopelessness he experienced as the former Juventus prospect meandered out of football through non-league at the age of 29.
Having learnt to cope with his own demons, the ex-Stoke City and Portsmouth forward has now made it his mission to ensure clubs, supporters, newspapers and broadcasters are fully briefed on how the disease manifests itself and its destructive potential to wreck careers.
“Media have got a very big part to play in creating that environment and I think they have done a lot better lately,” says Pericard. “They don’t give as much negative feedback on players. They have tried to be more positive which can help the mentality of a player, how they feel and conduct themselves.
“Maybe we should look at everyone who wants to be a sports journalist and maybe they should be educated on elite sport. I was giving a lecture to the London Communications College and telling them just because they are earning £10,000 a week and driving a fast car, footballers might not be happy.
“I told them to look behind it, to look at depression, the financial burden and they realised that it is more than the Saturday game. Turning that mindset can change their writing style. It would be good to educate more sports journalists.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility. We should be promoting a policy of openness. There shouldn’t be a hidden agenda. You can understand that a club might want to be confidential about the state of their players because another club might use it against them as a tactic but I think there has to be a compromise between the players, the clubs and the media industry. I would welcome the media knowing more about the other side of football.”
One in five people nationwide suffer from some form of depression every year yet the general understanding of the illness is very poor.
Pericard does not blame society in general for failing to educate itself about the issues but he does insist that every industry, and football in particular with its gross public exposure and weight of fame, needs to be given the chance to learn.
“Today it is understandable that people don’t really understand because it’s not really talked about because it’s an invisible illness,” he says. “It’s easy to talk about physical illness because people can see it.
“When it’s invisible it’s hard to talk about it and that’s why there’s so much naivety around depression, mental health issues and it’s sort of dark. Now it’s something that has come to the forefront of public interest – we have to understand that a human being is made of physical and a spiritual presence.
“It’s very important to pay attention to both the physical and the mind. I can’t understand why people haven’t spoken about it but I’m sure, in 10 years’ time, the mind will be talked about equally.
“You just have to look at the stat that one in four people suffer from depression. Footballers are no different to anyone else in that, we are just normal people.”
Clubs, according to Pericard, are starting to wake up to the problem. He has been invited into Manchester United, Manchester City, Stoke City and Reading to talk about his own experiences and give advice to young players, while dialogue has been opened with the PFA and Premier League domestically, as well as the NFL and NBA overseas.
“With EWM, one of our aims is on academic players. When they’re 15 or 16 all they want to do is play football and they will give up their education towards achieving that dream. We know not even one per cent will eventually become a professional football player so it’s very important to educate them and work with the clubs to provide the structure and strategy for those players to have a chance in a second career path if they do not make it,” he says.
“If you give £5,000 a week to any 17-year-old boy it is going to change their life. It changes their relationship they have with their parents because they become the bread-earner and they’re only 17.
“That’s why I think it is so important to start the education as early as possible and change their mindset on money.
“I would have not made some of the mistakes I made on and off the pitch financially, relationship-wise, professionally – I think I would be playing right now and probably be in the Premiership. I believe and the evidence showed I should.
“At 17 I was playing with Juventus. Not just anyone can do that. The fact at 29 I retired playing non-league football means that something other than my talent stopped me fulfilling my potential.
“EWM is a business but it’s not just for money. It’s from my own experience, which is to fulfil a greater need to make life for other people better. Through education I can make the general public more compassionate with friends or those in their workplace then I will have done a great thing and this is what I look forward to do – not just footballers or the wider society.
For fans and young, impressionable players, Pericard stressed that football can appear to be a very different beast from what it really is.
“Being a footballer is not about the high salary and fast car,” he says. “We have to look at the enormous pressure we have. I was 17 when I left France, I went to Juventus – one of the biggest clubs in the world, I had to play alongside Zinedine Zidane and in front of 80,000 people. One bad game and boom, a lot of bad criticism.
“If you couldn’t make it after three years you were out of a job with no education, nothing to fall on. The pressure is immense. We might be given £10,000 a week but we don’t know what to do with it so we get involved with the wrong people, being advised by the wrong financial schemes and all that adds up to pressure. We live in a bubble that is so intense that even one little mistake means game over.”