Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Remembering Robert Enke: What Has Football Learned?

Posted on 10 November 2020 by Lukas Flottmeyer

It is 10 November 2009. A tall, athletic, muscular man drives around his hometown of Hannover, Germany, for eight hours. He is charming, thoughtful, and quiet, and is beloved by his co-workers, his boss and his family. He is one of the best in the whole country at his job, perhaps even the best.

But although the public loves him, his mind cannot feel the recognition and adoration anymore. He knows this feeling well, this dystopian feeling that the entire world works against him, that nothing good happens in his life.

He has had this feeling before, in 2003, when he was working in Barcelona. But he fought alongside his family against the dark thoughts and he won. He found his way out of the darkness.

But this time it is different. For the last few months, he has tried to find a way back out of the darkness, but he has not seen the light at the end of the tunnel. That is why a letter is on the bedside table at home.

It contains the last words he will ever write. Shortly after 6pm, he takes his own life, stepping in front of a train at a level crossing near his home.

Around 100 miles away, a 12-year-old boy comes home from table-tennis practice at 8pm and notices the sound of the TV in the living room. The TV is not usually on at this time of the day.

He sees his mother sitting in front of the news, eyes focused on the screen. When he turns his head, he cannot believe what he sees. Millions of questions pass through his mind and tears run down his cheeks. The 12-year-old boy is me, the tall man who killed himself is German national team goalkeeper Robert Enke.

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The entire world is devastated. From China to the USA, newspapers and broadcast companies report the story. German chancellor Angela Merkel consoles Enke’s widow Teresa with a letter. Around 35,000 people attend the funeral in Hannover’s AWD-Arena, while millions of people watch the ceremony on their screens from home.

A German national goalkeeper, an icon, died because of depression. At the time, this mental illness was not frequently discussed, but 11 years later, the world knows more about this illness called “depression”.

Depression and other mental illnesses change your perception of the world around you. Everything can seem dark and you typically cannot find happiness anymore.

“Depression changes the metabolism in your brain,” explains Enke’s friend and biographer Ronald Reng. “You cannot expect a depressed person to be happy and joyful. It is not possible. Just as you cannot expect someone with a broken arm to wash up the dishes. Patience and understanding are key to helping sick people.”

Reng is an ambassador for the Robert Enke Foundation, which was founded by the German Football Association, the German Football League and Enke’s former club Hannover 96 in 2010, just a few months after his death.

The charity has increased knowledge about the mental illness among the German public, and has also helped generate more acceptance for people, especially for professional athletes, to come out with their mental health issues.

For example, in 2018 former Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker opened up about his issues with handling the stress and pressure of a matchday in an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel. The public response was thoughtful and supportive.

“More and more frequently you read and hear about professional sportsmen and women that suffer from mental health issues,” says psychiatrist Dr Frank Helmig, who works with the Robert Enke Foundation and is an expert on sports psychiatry.

“Our goal is to destigmatise psychiatric illnesses. It should not make a difference if you are going to an ear, nose and throat specialist or to a psychiatrist.”

Dr. Helmig is sure that increased awareness among the general public, as well as in sports clubs and in sports associations, has changed through the work the foundation has done over the last ten years.

There is evidence that a more sensitive handling of mental health illnesses by the media and by the public has helped athletes all over the world to speak about their struggles. England international Ben Chilwell recently went public about his mental health issues:

Unlike Robert Enke, Chilwell does not have to fear that he has to end his career, let alone his life. Statements like this did not seem possible when Enke was playing football.

In 2006, former Germany international Sebastian Deisler received backlash after he announced that he was getting psychiatric treatment, with German newspaper BILD using the intrusive and tasteless headline: ‘Deisler back in Psycho-clinic’.

Most athletes thus kept their problems under wraps. “There had to be more athletes with mental health issues before 2010 but it was not tolerated,” says Dr Helmig.

“Today, there is a basic understanding that depression is a common mental illness and people who suffer from it are not ‘crazy people’ or ‘psychos’,” says Reng. “Even if a manager does not know exactly what depression is, they would not kick you out of the team anymore. They know that you should get treatment first.”

Going to a therapist or psychiatrist might not yet be as ‘normal’ as going to an ENT specialist, but Enke’s death helped the world to understand the importance of treating depressed people with respect and affection.

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“The biggest step, no matter if you are an athlete or a ‘normal’ person, is to admit that you suffer from mental health issues,” explains Dr Helmig. “[But] especially professional athletes struggle to get treatment because of their prominence.”

To help with precisely this problem, the Foundation and Enke’s attending physician Dr Valentin Markser, who was a German and European champion handball goalkeeper, started to organise a network of psychiatrists and psychotherapists who wanted to focus on sports.

“Robert really struggled to find the right psychiatrist where he had the feeling to be understood. Today, Germany has a network of 70 sport psychiatrists who specialise in treating athletes with mental and psychiatric illnesses,” says Reng.

Both the author and psychiatrist independently agree that, although there is still a lot of work to be done, progress is being made.

Robert Enke’s death woke up a nation and the entire football world, but depression is still a big issue in society. According to Mental Health First Aid England, 24% of women and 13% of men in England suffer from depression in their lifetime and 6.7% of Britain’s population attempt suicide.

However, depression is both survivable and liveable-with: if people with depression receive the proper treatment, up to 90% recover in the UK within the first year.

All the progress of the last eleven years will not bring Robert Enke back, but it could help save others from suffering in the way that he did. There are ways to get help, with the majority of those who do recovering. The sad story of the tall, athletic, muscular man with the charming smile helps us remember that we are not alone.

Reng reflects on the legacy left by his friend: “Robert’s death will always seem pointless to me, but it did effect a positive change.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, UK mental health charity Mind maintain a list of helplines and services.

And if you’re reading this from outside the UK, you can find a service near you at CheckPoint.Org.