Darren Gough has fought and won many famous battles on the cricket field. Yet 15 years on from his retirement from the game, England’s legendary fast bowler reveals some of his greatest challenges are being won away from the spotlight.
Darren lost two of his closest friends to suicide within a year. He was left devastated when months after a holiday with six male pals, two took their lives.
His wife Anna has also suffered severe panic attacks and anxiety, which began as a young mum.
Darren, 52, is now on a mission to raise awareness of mental health issues and help those in need of support.
Young cricketers at Yorkshire County Cricket Club – where Darren was once captain and is now managing director – get to enjoy wellness days.
And at the family home in Buckingham-shire, wife Anna also hosts wellness retreats. Darren is also backing the mental Health Charity My Black Dog, attending a star-studded dinner and auction this week to raise vital funds.
He is determined to highlight the importance of looking after mental health.
“Just six months after a lads holiday with my closest friends to Dubai, I lost one of them to suicide,” recalled Darren.
“Then, just 18 months later, another one. Of six friends on the trip, two committed suicide.
“Those two lads were always at the centre of attention – the heart of any party.
“They were full of energy, very successful, incredible human beings.
“Those who are suffering are never obvious. It is easily hidden.
“One was a 20-year friendship. Nothing ever prepares you for that kind of loss.
“I haven’t suffered from mental health issues, but I know from my wife what those struggles are like.”
Darren’s demanding international career took him away from his family for long periods and it impacted heavily on Anna.
The proud couple have two sons.
He said: “I used to call what I had as ‘selfishness’, but I know now it’s not that exactly. The truth is, as elite sportspeople we had to be away from home for long periods – often eight to nine months at a time – and you cannot allow yourself to feel down or you won’t be able to succeed.
“It is hard to reach peaks as a professional sportsperson – the only way to do that is to adopt a certain mentality.
“You are trained to be strong and at your best for your country.
“But cricket used to have the biggest suicide rate and I can understand why.
“To succeed at the top you have to forget everything, to be in a bubble.
“Most cricketers retire in their mid-30s and have no money. They can suddenly find themselves going from the top to freefall.
“Every team must have the responsibility to be aware of these realities and help these young men. I played with players who committed suicide.
“There are no warning signs. The foundations in a club must be in place to police against issues before they happen.
“One of the first things I did was to take a first team squad on a wellness day. It was in Broughton Hall Sanctuary in Yorkshire, it has a wellbeing centre, and we were able to use Anna’s expertise.
“I did that to take them away from the stresses going on at that moment in time.
“Yorkshire, with other first class counties, are making a huge step forward with staff wellbeing.
“We have to keep on top of wellness.
“It’s about making sure in a highly pressurised job that wellbeing is important.
“It is important for sports clubs to lead from the front.”
He added: “We have a nature retreat at my family home that my wife runs.
“We want people who need help to be able to find it.
“She is an expert and believes in the power of things like cold water therapy.
“She is brilliant and helps so many people. I was away from home a lot in my playing days and that left her alone with the children.
“She suffered as a result of that. Her own successful battles with anxiety and mental health are the reasons why I know a lot about the area. I am proud of her.”
Anna continues: “It was 27 years ago that I first noticed something was going on with my mental health – I had panic attacks and anxiety.
“I was under immense pressure. I was a new mum and having a baby, while my husband was away playing cricket in Australia. The media attention was crazy.
“Within 12 hours there was a press conference in my hospital room, I was photographed holding a baby and a cricket ball.
“The pressure was unbearable, my husband was away on tour and it just triggered something. He left me for the tour when I was 36 weeks pregnant and I wouldn’t see him for four months. Then on his return he was under pressure.”
She explains: “I believe something happens when you’re young that makes you more vulnerable later to mental health issues – the foundations of your childhood create templates for future events.
“I had an unsettled childhood and my husband being away at that key moment triggered something. I was under an immense spotlight – I just broke – my brain just went ‘enough’. There’s a huge shame attached to mental health but now I have confidence to speak out.
“Then I felt full of shame. It can eat away at you. I think men feel this more than women, they hold it in more, they are more guarded about showing vulnerability.
“At the time I was able to access support and find a way out. I was in a different position to others, I was lucky.
“After deep immersive retreats and therapy, trying to understand people and human nature, I said to Darren, ‘Why did I go through this?’ He said, ‘Because you’re aware and curious and didn’t want to blank it’.
“I want our retreat to be a mini escape from the craziness of the world. It’s not just four years of running the retreat, it’s the experience of 27 years of dealing with these issues that means I can understand people when they walk through the door.
“I have a deep empathy for whoever comes in here – it is a space without judgement and that makes it a proper escape.
“People are scared to show vulnerability. But vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength if you dare to be vulnerable.”
- The couple will be attending My Black Dog – The Big Bash 2023 in London on March 2. Tickets are available to the public. For information on tickets and the work of the charity visit: myblackdog.co
- For details on Anna’s retreats visit: annamgough.com/get-in-touch
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