Parallels: Celtic and Mental Health

I guess I should preface this piece today with what the younger crowd call a “trigger warning”. I’m going to be touching on some issues around mental health in this article. Some of these issues have affected me personally. If discussions of this type make you uncomfortable, then thanks for stopping by, and I would ask you to try to read on. But if you can’t that’s perfectly ok too.

Much has been said throughout this season about Celtic’s “bottle”, their mental fortitude or rather the lack thereof that has been apparent since last August. Some of the discussion around this has, at times, gotten rather toxic. A lot was said about players lacking courage or commitment. Some say that they weren’t sufficiently strong, or that they just weren’t trying hard enough.

Such toxicity is sadly all too familiar to me. I see similar assertions thrown out with alarming frequency whenever people talk about mental health. I have battled depression most of my adult life. I still do to this day.

“You’re not sick, you’re just feeling a bit down”

“Come on, you’re actually quite lucky, others have it far worse than you do”

These are the more polite commentaries. Often, people take a far more terse approach:

“Cheer up! For F*cks Sake! What’s wrong with you!”

And of course for guys like me, there is the ultimate in male toxicity : “You just need to man up!”

None of this helps. If you’re a sufferer, it just makes your feelings of misery and total lack of self-confidence even worse.

So, what does any of this wallowing have to do with Celtic?

Well actually, quite a lot, I think.

I have seen almost all of the above comments being fired at Celtic and sometimes at individual players and staff on a daily basis for several months now. Of course, the affect such comments have on a football club, especially one as big as Celtic should not be anywhere near as impactful as that on a vulnerable individual fighting against mental illness.

However, the pattern is the same. Toxicity only further heightens feelings of anguish, which in turn makes the symptoms worse. Having watched us play out a disappointing 1-1 draw with Sevco a couple of days ago, I remain convinced that we are just as good as they are, perhaps even better, when you look at the pure footballing ability of our individual players compared to theirs. If the problem isn’t physical, then perhaps it’s mental.

I’m a great believer in the idea of “knowing your enemy” as far as mental health goes. My journey through it has seen me read extensively on the subject: its symptom, its triggers and ultimately the types of interventions, treatments and preventative measures necessary to bring it under control.

I think some of the principles I see being applied in medicine to battle depression could also be used to help Celtic’s players and staff get back on track for next season.

Bear with me on this one, it may take a while to explain.

In tackling mental illness, you need to take a multi-faceted approach. First you need to understand the symptoms, then you need to think about what triggers them. Next you need to consider how you can change your surroundings or your lifestyle to limit exposure to these triggers. Finally, there comes the most difficult aspect in all of this: Cutting out completely the things in your life that are holding you back. This could be unresolved personal problems, bad relationships, unhappy living or working environment and perhaps most pertinent to Celtic, ridding yourself of the things that negatively impact your own feelings of confidence and self-worth.

Confidence has, for me, been the biggest issue for Celtic this year, but I think you could make a case for all of the above having impacted the team to some extent.

So let’s take an analytical approach here. Humour me if you will, in a wee thought exercise. Let’s imagine we are therapists, and Celtic is our patient. Until a little over a year ago, the patient was flying high, seemingly unbeatable, and taking on each new challenge life threw at them with confidence, aggression and vigour. Then something changed, something broke within them.

As my fellow writer Sean commented on here last week, Covid undoubtedly played a role in Celtic’s downfall this year. However, every team in the league had to compete with the pandemic. So, a contributing factor for sure, but in my opinion, a tangential one.

So, what was the triggering event? What caused Celtic to crash and burn so spectacularly this year.

Well, as is the case with many mental health patients, myself included, when you don’t deal with minor, manageable problems, they mount up and become bigger problems. Eventually, you reach a critical mass and functioning day to day becomes more difficult. Back as the end of 2018, we lost the new year game to Rangers.

That was our first warning that all was not well. But we ignored it and ploughed on regardless, which as any therapist will tell you, is the worst thing you can do if you’re having mental issues. When we scraped past Rangers in the League Cup Final despite being utterly outplayed, it was clear the problems were getting bigger, still we staggered on and wrapped up the 9th championship in a row. But by then, our problems had reached critical mass. However, covid ensured that it would be several more months before our impending breakdown would actually crystalize.

As the overarching issue of our team being tired both physically and mentally and in need of freshening up with new faces went largely unaddressed, other supplementary problems emerged. Again to use the mental health parallel, many patients find it difficult to pinpoint the exact triggering event or issue that leads to a breakdown. Instead, when they look back with hindsight, they realize that it is a cumulative effect of several things going wrong at once, coupled perhaps with a natural susceptibility to such problems.

Celtic’s board being reluctant to take the steps necessary to truly put distance between us and Rangers, even when they were at their lowest ebb, could be interpreted as our own kind of natural susceptibility. The board took numerous misplaced steps over the past 9 years, which left us prone to just this kind of collapse.

Let’s look at the other background problems.

When Brendan Rodgers opted to leave Celtic in early 2019, the reflexive reaction from most supporters, myself included, was to brand him a rat, a traitor and a mercenary. I still stand by those assertions, but his departure did speak to wider problems which we, in our anger, ignored. Just like the depression sufferer who chooses to get angry with themselves for “not being normal” rather than having the clarity of thought to realize there are bigger factors in play.

I spoke earlier of “bad relationships” and “unhappy working environments”. Well, it’s clear that the single most important relationship that is crucial to Celtic’s health and happiness is the one that the club enjoys with the supporters. Our absence from the stadium this year has undoubtedly impacted our players. It has also allowed tactics and management styles that clearly were not working to fester and drag on for far longer than they should have.

Like an unhappy partner in a relationship, some of us supporters reacted at times with anger, frustration and despair at the way things were going on the pitch. Negativity fed further negativity, and this negative feedback loop only accelerated Celtic’s dethroning as champions. In much the same way as depression sufferers can, unwittingly, end up feeding into their own symptoms with behavior that only exacerbates the their condition.

Ok, I think that concludes the diagnosis part of the process, now comes the easier part, treatment. Like all sufferers, admitting you have a problem and understanding that problem is the most challenging part of the process. Once you understand what’s wrong, it’s just a matter of trial and error to see which treatment, or blend of treatments works to make you feel better.

For Celtic, this will, once again, require a multi-faceted approach. Instead of medication, what we need is an overall of the internal workings of the club. Our new, incoming Chief Executive Dominic McKay, should immediately seek to reform the processes within the club that have left so many fans feeling disconnected from those that run our club.

There needs to be acknowledgement from the board of their part in our fall from grace. They then need to take concrete actions to show the fans they mean to get us back where we should be as soon as possible. Bringing on a top class new manager, and hopefully offering season ticket holders some kind of discount on next season’s prices as a reward for their patience this season would be a good start.

We fans also have to play our part in this healing process, and accept that a major rebuild is needed at Celtic, indeed it has probably been needed since 2018. We may not get it right straight away. As painful as it may be, we may have to accept that next year’s title is not guaranteed to come back to us. Like a recovering patient, a slow steady progression back to full mental health is needed to prevent a relapse. Push too hard and demand too much too soon, and you could be right back where you started.

As for the players. Well, those who are unhappy at Celtic need to be moved on as quickly as possible. If that means we don’t get quite as much money for them as we would have hoped, then so be it. Cutting out the negative influence of want-away players is more important in the short to medium term than a few million pounds of extra income. Those who choose to stay and fight it out, need our unswerving backing. It’s a cliche to say “get behind the team” but that will be absolutely essential next season.

That’s not to say we can’t criticize if we see where players are going wrong. But that critique needs to be targeted and constructive. For example: Saying “I think this player would work better as part of a 5-man midfield than a 4 man defense.” is good critique. Saying “punt him! he’s sh*te!” isn’t helpful to anyone.

Of course, as supporters it is our prerogative to say whatever we please. I would simply ask that you take a moment to think of the potential impact of your words before you do.

If Celtic supporters are to return to happier times next year then ultimately our emphasis must be on the “support” part. This season wasn’t acceptable, not because we aren’t allowed an occasional bout of human weakness. It was unacceptable because it was ultimately, entirely preventable. However, those in a position to help chose to ignore the symptoms long before they grew to unmanageable proportions. That cannot be allowed to happen again. As much as a therapist is responsible for the care of his patients, it is on all of us, the board, the management, the players and the fans, to ensure Celtic is never allowed to fall into such a fragile state ever again.

Before I go, I just want to add, there’s plenty of us out there who are feeling the strain mentally this year. There’s absolutely no shame in that. I sought out help and now I’m getting better. You can too. It’s ok not to be ok. Talk to your friends, your family, even your fellow supporters if it helps. When it comes to mental health, one thing is for sure: You’ll Never Walk Alone.

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