Mental Health Awareness week: ex-footballer discusses media bullying

Luke Chadwick’s retrospective candidness on the effects of bullying has drawn attention to how our times have changed.

If you don’t know who Luke Chadwick is then I can hardly blame you. If you weren’t a big fan of football or born before 1995 (neither of which I was) then you’ll likely not have heard of him.

But Chadwick has been making headlines this week for opening up about his own experiences with depression and anxiety during his early years at Manchester United from 1999 onwards. Throughout his career, Luke was routinely mocked for his appearance on a football panel show called They Think It’s All Over, which ran throughout the late nineties and early 2000s and included a running gag about Luke that lasted months.

On Twitter, Luke recently wrote about the bullying in honour of Mental Health Awareness week, saying that it ‘affected my mental health a lot. The feeling of embarrassment stopped me from talking about how I felt’. An outpouring of support subsequently followed, and the two hosts of the original show, Nick Hancock and Gary Lineker, have publicly apologised, describing their actions as ‘appalling’.

Unfortunately Luke’s case isn’t an isolated one. In retrospect, noughties television and celebrity culture was shockingly mean-spirited. Watch any reality show from that era such as the X-Factor or Big Brother and you’ll find clip after clip of outrageously unacceptable behaviour by today’s standards. Being outwardly offensive to people’s faces for laughs was the norm in a way that it simply isn’t now.

Britney Spears’ 2007 head shave moment is perhaps the pinnacle of this obsessive nastiness. At the time, there was very little discussion of her mental wellbeing, her ability to cope with the constant, never-ending barrage of cameras that incessantly captured her every waking moment. Her breakdown is disturbing and upsetting to watch today, but thirteen years ago many saw it as something to gawk at – a sellable product that would be slapped across tabloids the next morning to make a quick buck.

This lack of empathy combined with a feverish desire to relate to the most famous faces of the time drove tabloid and celebrity culture through the roof. Absence of social media meant that the distance between audiences and celebrities was enormous, and the perception of our favourite pop stars, footballers, or actors was mostly in the hands of the press. As such, the media had free reign to mock and judge others with little repercussion or push back – nobody could defend themselves, or on the flip side be cancelled for negative comments, in the same way they can today.

Perhaps that’s why Luke’s sharing of his negative feelings comes across so poignantly. It’s a reminder of how far things have shifted in fifteen years, how much the conversation has opened up, and how far we’ve progressed in being more compassionate, understanding, and considerate of other people’s mental health.

Of course, we’re not absolutely there just yet. Programmes like The Wendy Williams Show continue to thrive on gossip and celebrity mockery, and YouTubers such as ‘Killer Keemstar’ have built brands on the drama and personal lives of other creators. He-said-she-said rhetoric still generates traffic, but the key difference is that targeted individuals can defend themselves and converse with their audiences directly, rather than seeing themselves on television with no way of responding. Self-control over your brand is much easier, and a large portion of the public will react negatively to humour that is overtly cruel and unnecessary.

This allows for celebrities to be more vulnerable and authentic in public today, something made particularly striking when someone like Luke Chadwick, previously considered a purebred example of masculinity along with other male sports stars, feels comfortable coming forward. How we understand masculinity and perceive male expression of emotion has begun to change over the last decade or so. Luke’s tweets would have likely been met with mixed reactions from the football community in 2010, but ten years on we’re far more receptive to male discussion of depression, anxiety, and mental health struggles.

The outpouring of public grief for Kobe Bryant’s sudden death earlier this year was one such example. Both Big Shaq and Michael Jordan made no attempt to hide their devastation, speaking candidly about their personal struggles and deep connections to a player that was both their friend and colleague. This clip from Shaq is disarmingly honest, and the reaction to it was one of universal support.

Dwayne Johnson has also been open about his struggles with depression, which was met with a similarly positive reaction. Here he is talking about his experiences as a young man, unable to leave his apartment and feeling trapped in a bubble. It’s a brief but powerful clip that’s definitely worth a watch.

Tyson Fury has spoken openly about depression too, describing himself as on the verge of suicide several years ago. These open interviews are helping to normalise mental health struggles, and encouraging more men to come forward with their own experiences. The fact that Luke felt comfortable being open about anxiety and abuse online is evidence to suggest that the general discourse has changed, and makes those original appearance jokes from twenty years ago look horrendously outdated by comparison.

Our understanding of emotional wellbeing has evolved significantly since Luke was a teenager, and it’s reassuring to see that both Gary and Nick felt it right to come forward and apologise. We’ve still got strides to make in this field, especially on social media, but events such as Mental Health Awareness week are helping all of us feel more comfortable opening up publicly.

Luke’s story is testament to the progress we’ve made collectively. Hopefully more figures and celebrities can come forward without fear of alienation or dismissal in the future, and our relationship with the biggest names in entertainment continues to become healthier and more authentic.

The less celebrities we drive toward broadcasted breakdowns, the better.

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