Clarke Carlisle speaking to the audience in the Faculty of Health lecture theatre with his wife Carrie sitting in the background

“Why do we put milk on our cereal?” Clarke Carlisle asked the audience at the University’s Festival of Ideas event. “It’s what we’ve always done, our parents did it, their parents did it. And then we see advertising, so we’re conditioned to think milk is what you have but it’s about consciously breaking that cycle of behaviour. We share our experiences so people don’t repeat our actions.” 

In a brutally honest and humbling hour-and-a-half, the former professional footballer and broadcaster, talked about his mental health journey, suicide attempts and road to recovery with his wife, Carrie, standing by his side.

The expectant father-of-four spoke exclusively to Edge Hill University’s Press Office before taking to the floor to educate people on spotting the signs of ill-mental health both in themselves and others.

With a positive movement of people talking about mental health in sport, particularly in rugby, we asked Clarke whether he thought it was the same in football or whether there’s still a way to go.

He said: “Although you’re comparing two sports, rugby is totally owned and governed by the RFU (Rugby Football Union), and they have dictatorial control over what happens at their clubs whereas when you’re talking about football, even though we say football as an industry, they’re 92 separate business entities.”

Giving an insight into mental health support in football and the mechanisms in place to support players, Mr Carlisle anecdotally drew on instances of ‘disaster recovery’ and called for more to be done from the beginning, much like Burnley FC’s academy.

He added: “They’re introducing a whole self-approach so that every individual that comes through their academy knows their value as a human being, not just as a potential footballer. And, bringing that in right through to the age of 21 is a fantastic start on this journey but there are others who don’t do it at all and that’s invariably because of the cost basis for it.

“There’s also a massive staff turnover, you’ve got a manager who wholly endorses this and then the next manager comes in and thinks it’s fickle and totally dismisses it so, until someone comes in and externally imposes a regime within the industry then it’s always going to be this bit-part approach but we always view sport as separate from society. Every sport is made up of your neighbours and mine, members of our community, and they reflect the knowledge and understanding of the general population so we’re all going on this journey together.”

In a whistle-stop tour of his career, from his first signing at Blackpool FC to playing in front of 90,000 people for England U21s with his mum, dad and grandad in tears in the stands, Clarke described the pivotal points that led to him being forced into retirement and left without an identity as he was no longer ‘Clarke Carlisle the footballer’.

Explaining that it’s only harder for people in sport to come forward and talk about their mental health when it’s seen as a weakness, he said:

“We need to totally transform that perception about talking about your mental health. If people start to view talking about their mental health and the maintenance of it as personal development then no-one is reluctant to talk about it as it’s seen as upskilling, it’s seen as progress but, while we retrain the view that it’s a sign of vulnerability, that it’s a sign of perceived weakness then yes, people will be reticent to come forward in these elite alpha dog-eat-dog industries and sport.

“Anyone in a uniform almost adopts superhuman traits; police, fire etc, whoever the first responders were who went to the trailer and found nigh on 40 bodies. We just take it for granted that they go and do their job and find the culprits. That is going to traumatise people and we need to understand that no matter what industry you’re in, you go in as your work persona, and when you leave, you are a human being.”

Clarke asked the audience what they’d give to someone who had a cold, when talking about signposting to professional mental health services. He called on the those in the room to recognise early intervention, candidly likening a chat, hug and cup of tea as the mental health equivalent of a Lemsip.

Carrie Carlisle

“There’s a reason it doesn’t feel appropriate.” Carrie Carlisle said to the crowd. “You’re not supposed to diagnose people. It is appropriate however, for you to get help.” 

Carrie, a newspaper columnist, was six-months pregnant in 2017 when Clarke travelled to Liverpool intent on ending his life for the fifth time. Although she knew his history and about the previous attempts, she explained how she didn’t see it coming, saying: “I love my husband unconditionally but there’s a part of it I just don’t get.”

Since that time, the couple recalled, they had embarked on their road to recovery together and were now thriving, intent on changing how mental health is viewed and at what point people seek help.

She said: “83 men a week take their own lives. Where are the statistics about people like Clarke? Clarke went on a journey from actively suicidal to the most well he’s ever been in three weeks. These are the statistics we need.

“It is alright. We are proof it is alright.

“Go to your GP. No-one’s going to make you do anything but tell the truth.”

Ending the interview, we asked Clarke and Carrie what they would say to people who don’t know the channels they can access to get support for their mental health. Clarke said: “It’s good to talk, but what’s important is what we do when someone talks.

“We would say that there are plenty of ports of call for anyone looking for help and you all have your own doctors and GP surgery but if you’re very reluctant to go to that face to face on a first step, please do utilise the online services of trusted, national provides.

“So if you look first to Samaritans who have a free phoneline, free text line, to Mind, these guys will point you to the local services in your area who can be on call 24/7. If you’re unsure, go big, go national, because they will signpost you local and specific”

The Festival of Ideas is coming to an end with an ‘In Conversation’ session with Liverpool-born actress Rita Tushingham and a two-day dance programme ‘Dancing with Health’. Find out more at https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/festival-of-ideas/programme/

Samaritans can be contacted by calling 116 123 for free or for more information, visit www.samaritans.org

The mental health charity Mind can be contacted on 0300 123 3393 or you can text 86463. More information can be found at www.mind.org.uk