‘I think I wore a mask most of the time’: Kevin Ellison opens up on struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts and being ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ around his family… with former Hull City and Morecambe star keen to help tackle mental health in football
- Former Hull star Kevin Ellison revealed all to Sportsmail on depression struggles
- The 41-year-old admitted to considering suicide and suffering around his family
- Ellison has spoken to other players and is keen for clubs to do more to help out
- Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]
Kevin Ellison had driven up the M6 so many times before. The same route almost every day from his home in Liverpool to Morecambe for nine years.
He was on that road again, as he always was, on his way to training. His silver Mercedes cruising in the fast lane. This time it was different. The dark feelings overwhelmed him and the uncontrollable thoughts flooded his mind.
‘If I veer into the central reservation would the world be a better place without me?’
Kevin Ellison (right) has bravely opened up to Sportsmail about his struggles with depression
After years of depression, many of them not knowing what was wrong, why he felt like he did, it had come to this. Looking back now, it was his two kids that stopped him. He couldn’t leave them behind. He wasn’t that selfish.
Ellison is better now. He signed for Newport County in League Two in September aged 41. Life is good. He still has his ups and downs, he says. He still gets angry now and again. Lockdown didn’t help. But he knows what’s wrong now and, crucially, he knows how to deal with it. Yoga has helped. He meditates every day. He also knows it’s best to talk.
And that’s why we’re here. The Football League has launched its Team Talk campaign in partnership with mental health charity Mind, to urge supporters to talk and stay connected throughout the Christmas and January period and keep the conversation around mental health going. Mind has just realised its landmark 10-year mental health report and the figures are concerning.
The now 41-year-old has admitted to contemplating suicide and ‘wearing a mask’ while playing
The number of men who have suicidal thoughts when feeling worried or low has doubled in the past 10 years. Almost 40 per cent more men admit feeling worried or low on a regular basis. Though men are also three times more likely to talk to a therapist when they feel that way than they were in 2009 when the study began. And that is good thing.
Ellison is, by his own admission, a ‘big, bald, horrible scouser’. A real Football League hard man. As it happens, depression does not care how ‘hard’ you are. It doesn’t discriminate.
‘I think I wore a mask most of the time,’ Ellison tells The Mail on Sunday. ‘There was a major front to some of my behaviours on a football pitch. It was hiding the fact I was vulnerable. That is classed as weakness in football when it shouldn’t be. And it will be for a long time until we get to the root of it, as more and more people speak out and open up. We are not robots. We all have these feelings whether you’re a footballer or a postman. Somewhere in our life, we or someone close to use will be affected by it.’
Tottenham defender Danny Rose revealed he had depression in the build-up to the World Cup in 2018. Jesse Lingard, of Manchester United, has said that speaking out about how his mother’s illness had affected him helped his mental health. Ellison says he has had professionals reach out to him to share their problems. ‘We’ve had a cry together,’ he says.
Former Tranmere star Ellison (right) has spoken to other players and wants clubs to do more
Ellison wants more to open up and for clubs to do more. ‘There’s still a stigma around it at a football ground. I look at lads in the changing room and I can see that they are in a bad place but they won’t speak out as they are young lads. When I spoke out, it wasn’t for sympathy it was to get the monkey off my back. It shouldn’t be like that, players should be able to go to their clubs or to the PFA and open up without fear of being judged. Football has moved on a lot but not necessarily when it comes to mental health.’ He praises clubs like Southampton who have hired player care managers.
Ellison has played for 14 clubs throughout his career but it was at the start of his nine-year spell at Morecambe in 2011 that the depression started. It was not until 2018 that he publicised what he had suffered. Even his ex-partner, the mother of his two children, did not know. ‘She’d sat next to me on the sofa for six or seven of years of the 18 years I was with her and she didn’t know. She’d lost family to people taking their own life and I was in fear of speaking out.’
He did not know what was wrong at first. ‘I suffered with mood swings. I was snappy around the house, angry around the kids, I would just fly off the hook with my ex-partner and not really understanding what was happening. She’d say she was walking on eggshells. There used to be a dark cloud that came over me. It drained the energy out of me.
Tottenham defender Danny Rose admitted to feeling depressed before the 2018 World Cup
Jesse Lingard (left) has spoken about his mother’s illness and the effects on his mental health
‘I would go from laughing and joking one minute, to snappy the next. She’d call me Jekyll and Hyde. I’d come home on a Saturday and we’d plan to go out for dinner. She’d have her nails and hair done and suddenly I wouldn’t want to go out. I’d go out to play with the kids, then all of a sudden, this thing, this emotion would come over me and I couldn’t control it. I didn’t know what it was.’
Looking back, Ellison thinks it was caused by his former partner suffering a miscarriage, family trauma and the insecurity of a footballer searching for his next contract. He blames how he was on the breakdown of his relationship.
At the time, Ellison took anger management classes. He thought he’d cracked it but the cloud descended again. He reached out to the PFA and got the help he needed.
He was offered medication but he wanted to do it another way. His counsellor introduced him to yoga. ‘When he mentioned it, I was like: “Isn’t that for women? That’s not for me”. I’m still doing it to this day. It helped me get where I am.’
Ellison believed he cracked it after taking anger management classes but contacted the PFA
And that’s a happier place. Lockdown put that under pressure. ‘I felt all these emotions coming again. I was nearing the end of my contract (with Morecambe), looking for a job, everyone was losing theirs on telly, there was Covid. I was starting to wonder how I was going to pay the bills. I started to overthink it all. So I reached out to the PFA again.’
They nipped it in the bud. ‘I knew it was coming and where it could have led if I’d let it build up more and more.’
He did that by talking. He plans to sit his 15-year-old son Charlie down soon and talk to him about it all. ‘I tell him if he gets upset and cries, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Men have emotions. It’s good to have a cry now and again. He looks at me like I’m a bit mad. I am trying to make up for lost time. All those times I’d come home and he’d ask me to play in the garden with him and I would for a bit but then go inside when the cloys came over me. I want to make up for the guilt of those little moments.’
Ellison has completed a counselling course with the PFA. ‘I know how many people suffer. I know what I’ve been through and I’ve come through the other side. I want to give something back to football.’
Ellison plans to sit down with his 15-year-old son Charlie and talk to him about his experience
But there’s still more to come from home on the pitch first. After applying for factory jobs and teaching assistant roles, he was offered a one-year deal at Newport. And they’re flying. Top of League Two. Ellison has been out injured since pre-season so has had to watch on, impressed. He’s happy to wait for his chance.
He’s also happy for whatever comes next.
‘I am in a better place and I look forward to next chapter but want to continue playing for as long as I can. It doesn’t scare me now. That was one of reasons I spoke out. I have seen where some ex-footballers have ended up: drugs, gambling, drinking. I knew I was coming to the end, I didn’t want to be in that situation. I knew I had to get myself into a better place for when I do finish.’
It has taken him a long time, but he’s found it at last.
Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]
The full Mind report can be found at https://www.mind.org.uk/media/6771/get-it-off-your- chest_a4_final.pdf.