Andreas Biermann suicide highlights struggle with depression in football

On Saturday night Andreas Biermann’s current club Spandauer Kickers confirmed that the 33-year-old had committed suicide. The former Union Berlin, Tennis Borussia Berlin and FC St. Pauli defender had struggled with depression for an extended period of time. Biermann himself had confirmed in 2012 that he had attempted to take his own life on three occasions.

The father of two had been open about his condition in the past. After making his condition public in 2009 Biermann had stated that it was Robert Enke’s suicide which had caused him to seek help. During a press conference the St. Pauli player stated that he had almost become addicted to gambling and that money worries had caused him to try to take his own life. In 2011 Biermann had published a book with the title ‘Rote Karte Depression’ about which chronicled his fight against depressions.

Andreas Biermann’s former teammates at St. Pauli and Union Berlin were shocked when they heard about the news. Union’s Torsten Mattuschka, who had played together with Biermann at Die Alte Försterei during the 2006/07 season, told the press:

He has tried to do it a few times. It was believed that he would managed to handle his condition. Unfortunately he didn’t succeed in doing so. It’s a tragedy. How despondent does one have to be, to do such a thing as a father of two? It is hard to imagine.

Former St. Pauli skipper Fabian Boll wrote on his Facebook page that he is ‘shocked, distraught and sad’.

Biermann:’Don’t come out of the closet’

After taking the brave step into the public in 2009 Biermann underwent stationary treatment for 58 days. However, his experiences taught him that it might not have been a wise to publicise his condition. After only 10 games in the Bundesliga 2 and 2 years of service for St. Pauli the defender’s contract wasn’t extended. He wasn’t offered a contract elsewhere and had to retire from professional football at the age of 29.

In an interview with the German magazine Stern Biermann expressed frustration about the fact that not a single club wanted to offer him a contract after he had left the Buccaneers. The defender was disappointed by his situation and told the magazine:

If any footballers out there are suffering from depressions I’ll advise them to keep it for themselves.

Furthermore, after he had been open about his struggles with the public the defender had hoped for more support from his teammates:

I told all of the players about my condition before the first training session after my return. It was disappointing that nobody in the team contacted me to talk to me about my condition.

Biermann had stated on several occasions that he wanted to study sports psychiatry in order to be able to help other players who were in a similar position as he was during his days as a footballer. After he had retired from professional football the defender went on playing football at a lower league level in Berlin.

Has Germany learned from the lessons of the past?

Former DFB president Theo Zwanziger hit seemingly a nerve when he stated that ‘football can’t be everything’ during his speech at Robert Enke’s funeral. Zwanziger went on saying:

Don’t just think about how things appear to be, brought to you by the media. Think about what there is to be found within a human, of weaknesses and doubts. Football isn’t everything.

The speech was moving, however, five years later on not an awful lot has changed within the world of German football.  At the same time as Biermann wasn’t finding new employment as a footballer in 2010, Hannover 96’s former sporting director gave his views in an interview with German broadcaster NDR about how German football had changed in the aftermath of Enke’s death:

Of course, there was the question how we can look after our footballers, especially the younger ones. But, we haven’t gotten that far. The business goes on as if nothing had happened. It’s a bitter to realise that!

Last year Enke’s former coach at Hannover, Andreas Bergmann, weighed into the discussion in an interview with Bild, repeating Schmadtke’s sentiments:

One has to appear strong to the outside world, one has to function, one has to prevail and to fulfil expectations. Many(players) have to act that part and therefore they are stuck in a constant process of denial. Their quality of life and their energy levels suffer as a result, and therefore also their performances suffer as well. For the most part it burns them out, that they can’t be themselves. Nevertheless, illness, weaknesses and fears are part of who we are.

Bergmann agreed with the sentiments Biermann had about footballers and their depressions, stating that players who suffer from depressions should stay in the closet, simply because the German society as a hole hadn’t gotten to the point of accepting depressions as something that belongs within the world of football.

More common than you might think

On reflection, it is a stark and maddening realisation that so little has changed over the years within the world of football. However, Bergmann’s point about the German public is a valid one as well. The stigma of mental illness has existed for many centuries. Philosophically speaking one can go back to Descartes to find the dualism, which separates the mind from the rest of the body. That dualism is still in play within today’s society, it is therefore somehow more acceptable to have a back injury than suffering from a mental illness.

A quick glance at the numbers provided by the World Health Organization would suggest that change within this area is now more necessary than it ever has been. Already in 2001 the organisation wrote:

If we take the example of depression which is currently ranked fourth among the 10 leading causes of the global burden of disease, it is predicted that by the year 2020, it will have jumped to second place. Major depression is linked to suicide. Most people who commit suicide are also clinically depressed. If we take suicide into account, then the already huge burden associated with depression increases much more.

8 years later on the WHO re-adjusted their numbers for the year 2030, stating that depression by that point is likely to be the number one among the leading causes of the global burden of disease. Depression is the number one epidemic of the 21st century according to the WHO. The way the disease has been covered by the media, or the lack of coverage rather, one could question wether or not this is public knowledge.

According to statistics suicide is the third most common cause of death in the age group between 15 and 44 in Germany, it’s even the second most common cause of death in the age group between 10 and 24. A total of 10,000 individuals end their own life every year in Germany, meaning that on average every 45 minutes a German commits suicide. Especially young men are at risk. Four percent of all suicides are committed by men between the age of 10 and 24.

However, this problem is far from just being a German problem. If one takes a closer look at the numbers from other western societies one is going to find similar numbers. Understanding this disease, making it public knowledge and having a public discourse about it may go far in potentially saving lives.

Both Robert Enke and Andreas Biermann received treatment for their condition, but both of them didn’t succeed in their struggle. There are certainly many differences between their cases. Enke was at the time a national team goalkeeper who wanted to keep his condition a secret, whilst Biermann played in the divisions below Enke and was open about it.

There remains the hope that the public and the world of football can become more aware and sensible given these events. However, if the last five years have taught us anything, it seems that the world of football seems to have moved on as if nothing has happened. Most societies around Europe have slowly started dealing with the problem of depressions on a more public level, however, there is still a long way to go in dealing with the problem on an appropriate level. It’ll take time for the public to understand how overpowering depressions can be.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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