Belfast Telegraph

Top ref who fought depression urges footballers with mental health issues to talk to team-mates

Football referee Lee Tavinder
Football referee Lee Tavinder
Football referee Lee Tavinder
Gerard ‘Jerry’ Thompson

By John Breslin

Fellow players are often the best people to talk to if suffering from mental health issues, according to a leading referee who has been open about his own battle with depression.

Lee Tavinder, the Irish FA's referee development manager, said the sudden death of Carrick Rangers player Gerard 'Jerry' Thompson reveals the importance of the football community coming together to support those who may otherwise suffer in silence.

"Just ask if you think everything is not okay," Mr Tavinder said. "Maybe they will not want to speak but there is absolutely no harm in asking."

Mr Thompson, a 24-year-old father of one from north Belfast, died suddenly earlier this week. His mother, Leanne Thompson, has urged those struggling with mental health issues to seek help.

"He was just our hero, we're going to miss him something serious. He loved us, he loved his girlfriend and we just don't understand why he did this," Ms Thompson said.

She added: "If anybody is thinking about doing something like this at all they need to speak to people, let people know what's going through their heads. Not just doing something like this. My son kept everything to himself, he never spoke about anything."

Mr Tavinder, who earlier this year was awarded a British Empire Medal for his services to mental health in Northern Ireland, said it is hugely important that people in football come together at this time.

"My support network was people in football," the referee said, referring to when he came out and started to speak about his own battle with anxiety and depression. But Mr Tavinder only opened up to someone when he was aged 33.

"The biggest support is going to be someone sitting in the changing room, the person to your left or right," he said. "The biggest support is going to come from your team-mate."

Mr Tavinder added: "Talking is the first step though it is the hardest. It is not necessarily ones that are closest or those that are the most obvious such as support organisations. It is the footballer next to you."

The referee - who also works with prison inmates and former offenders as part of the IFA's 'Stay Onside' programme, which includes talking mental health - believes footballers can be powerful role models for young people battling depression.

"But it is such a competitive game, many footballers do not want to admit a weakness. Footballers can play a big role in breaking down the stigma."

Mr Tavinder referred matches involving Jerry on a number of occasions though he did not know him on a personal level.

"It is hard to put in words, somebody so young," the football official said of Jerry's death. "We really do have a responsibility to look out for each other."

On social media, the referee said his thoughts are with the family "at such a heart breaking time".

He added: "It's hard to comprehend such a tragedy. I know from experience the hard work that the Irish FA and partner agencies have put into supporting mental health.

"The next step is for everyone in football to acknowledge mental health, unite as a sport and build a support structure for everyone involved.

"Football brings the best and worst in people and this tragedy and the outpouring of grief shows what a big family that we are."

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