ON the pitch, Leon McKenzie appeared to have the world at his feet.
Starting out as a plucky 17-year-old at Crystal Palace, he went on to play for Norwich City, before scoring in every tier of the English league.
But behind his success, he was fighting his own personal battle.
A string of injuries over his 18-year career and the immense pressure to perform eventually took their toll and one night, at his lowest point, he attempted to take his life.
Suicide is the single biggest cause of death in men under the age of 45 in Britain – with blokes three times more likely to kill themselves than women.
That’s why Leon has bravely and frankly shared his experience, as part of The Sun’s You’re Not Alone campaign this Mental Health Awareness Week.
‘My mind broke down’
The 40-year-old, from Croydon, south London, told The Sun Online: “I just gave up. My mind had just broken down, and not even my kids could save me in that moment.”
At the time, Leon was playing for Charlton Athletic FC but he was beginning to realise it football career was coming to an end.
When an Achilles injury prompted his boss to ask him if it was time he hung up his boots, he felt tipped over the edge.
Not even my kids could save me in that moment
One night after training he attempted to overdose with a handful of pills in his hotel room.
In his semi-conscious state, he had somehow managed to call his dad – former professional boxer Clinton McKenzie – to “say goodbye”.
He told him what he had done before collapsing on the bed.
Clinton happened to be nearby at the time and raced to the hotel in south east London where he called paramedics.
YOU'RE NOT ALONE
EVERY 90 minutes in the UK a life is lost to suicide.
It doesn’t discriminate, touching the lives of people in every corner of society – from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and footballers.
It’s the biggest killer of people under the age of 35, more deadly than cancer and car crashes.
And men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.
Yet it’s rarely spoken of, a taboo that threatens to continue its deadly rampage unless we all stop and take notice, now.
That is why The Sun launched the You’re Not Alone campaign.
The aim is that by sharing practical advice, raising awareness and breaking down the barriers people face when talking about their mental health, we can all do our bit to help save lives.
Let’s all vow to ask for help when we need it, and listen out for others… You’re Not Alone.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems, the following organisations provide support:
- CALM, www.thecalmzone.net, 0800 585 858
- Heads Together, www.headstogether.org.uk
- Mind, www.mind.org.uk, 0300 123 3393
- Papyrus, www.papyrus-uk.org, 0800 068 41 41
- Samaritans, www.samaritans.org, 116 123
When Leon woke up he was in hospital surrounded by his wife and parents, who were all sobbing – relieved he had come round.
Later that morning he was discharged. But, instead of heading home, he picked up his kit and went back to the training ground – as if nothing ever happened.
‘Old school mentality’
Leon, now a dad of five, said: “In football, you’re taught to roll up your sleeves and be like ‘this isn’t bothering me, I’m good, just let me get on with it’. But that’s old school mentality.
“I’m quite a sensitive man. I’ve always had these emotions.
“If I’m watching a sad film with my kids I’ll cry. Not many men are able to bring that up.
“But I only realised I needed to get help after I attempted to take my life.”
I only realised I needed to get help after I attempted my life
Leon believes his mental health problems started during his childhood.
He explained: “I didn’t understand depression at a young age. My first signs were seeing my parents go through a horrible break up.
“People who are coming from a broken family know that isn’t very nice.
“Then when I started junior school I got bullied for a little while.
“There was a bit of jealousy involved because I came from a famous boxing family, so I felt quite lonely at times.
“It started with name calling then all of a sudden it got quite deep and I would get properly beaten up.
“I tried to speak to someone close to me in my family but there was so much going on with things in life.
“I think that sometimes as adults we can be a bit fixated in our own lives and don’t take things as serious as we maybe should at times.”
10 signs your loved one could be at risk of suicide
There are several warning signs that a person is at risk of suicide.
But it’s vital you know that they won’t always be obvious.
Lorna Fraser of the Samaritans said looking out for subtle personality changes in friends and family, especially if you know they have been going through a tough time.
These are the key signs to watch out for:
- A change in routine, such as sleeping or eating less than normal
- Lacking energy or appearing particularly tired
- Drinking, smoking or using drugs more than usual
- Finding it hard to cope with everyday things
- Not wanting to do things they usually enjoy
- Becoming withdrawn from friends and family – not wanting to talk or be with people
- Appearing more tearful
- Appearing restless, agitated, nervous, irritable
- Putting themselves down in a serious or jokey way, for example ‘Oh, no one loves me’, or ‘I’m a waste of space’
- Losing interest in their appearance, not liking or taking care of themselves or feeling they don’t matter
He added: “Then I moved into football and I did fantastically well early on, but along with the fantastic times there were also isolated, lonely, shallow times where I literally didn’t want to be here anymore.
“That was more from a coping mechanism point of view – I didn’t know how to cope with having to stop playing.
“One thing spiralled out of control and it becomes a bit of a whole vicious spiral.”
Leon blames bottling his emotions for ultimately ending up on the brink.
“It’s one of them where, as men, we bottle it up and there’s a lot of self-pride and egotistical motions going on,” he said.
“We’re men and we have to be strong. If you keep bottling things up so many times and just put it to the side, after a while you’re going to crash. And that’s exactly what happened with me.
“It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in – if you don’t have a loved one to speak to or someone you can go to, that’s when you’re going to run into problems.
“It might be the simplest thing that will trigger you off but you can go bang, and fall straight on your face, to the point where now you’re really struggling to get up.
“I think that’s what society is going through at the moment. There’s a lot of people that are falling in such a way that they are struggling to get up.”
Leon said that retiring football was the “trigger” in pushing him closer to the edge.
He said: “We all have triggers as humans, and life circumstances change all the time.
“People get made redundant, they’re depressed. They lose a loved one, they’re depressed.
“There’s things that happen in life, but certain people don’t have the right coping mechanisms for the things that are sprung upon us.
“Me retiring from football was one of my triggers. I wasn’t able to cope with it.
“I loved doing this so much but all the pain and heartache I was having up until that point with the injury, coming back, getting injured, coming back, falling, coming back.
“It was totally draining. It psychologically damaged me.
“I didn’t feel like me anymore – I didn’t feel I was able to give the best representation of myself because my mind had broken down.
“It [the suicide attempt] wasn’t to get everyone’s attention, it was more like my mind broke down to the point where I couldn’t control how I was feeling.”
‘I made a choice to fight back’
He continued: “My children are my number one foundation, I’d die for them.
“But even in the position I was in at that particular time… giving up on life – it was a place of total despair – and not even my children could save my mind in that moment.
“A lot of people say it’s selfish but until you really go through it yourself or you see a loved one go through that suffering, you don’t really ever get it properly.
“But I made a choice to fight back from those dark few hours in my life. Not many of us make that choice to fight back.
“Some never get out but I did, which is why I share my story.”
After retiring from football, Leon followed in his father’s footsteps and took up boxing.
But he recently hung up his gloves, with a record in the ring of eight wins, two defeats and a draw.
He won a title at the age of 37 and just missed out on the English Super middleweight title after losing by a split decision.
MORE ON YOU'RE NOT ALONE
As well as Charlton Athletic, Leon played for clubs including Coventry City, Peterborough United and Northampton Town.
He managed to score in all of the English leagues after making his debut for Crystal Palace in the 1995-96 season.
Leon now speaks publicly about mental health and encourages people to speak out to break the stigma.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please call the Samaritans (free) on 116 123.