Former captain Claus Lundekvam opens up about struggling with his mental health and the importance of being able to talk openly about the subject, as part of Saints By Your Side, Southampton Football Club’s mental health campaign launched this week in partnership with Solent NHS Trust.
In 2008, Celtic visited St Mary’s for Claus’s testimonial, a chance for Southampton’s fans to thank the defender for 12 years of service after more than 400 appearances for the club. It also signalled the start of a difficult time for the Norwegian as he got to grips with life after football.
“I stood in my testimonial game against Celtic, absolutely over the moon and emotional, coming back one last time. Thanking the supporters for the support they had given me over 12 years and being so proud and so humble about retiring,” he said.
“A year after that match against Celtic, I woke up every morning shivering in a lot of sweats and I needed to drink half a bottle of vodka just to function. It hit me really badly and I made a lot of bad choices.”
For Claus, the transition from being a part of a lively dressing room and training with the team every day, to retiring from football, was a difficult one.
“Retirement was a place that I felt loneliness and I felt lack of purpose,” he said. “Overnight it disappeared, and depression crept in pretty quickly. I made some bad decisions, and I was all of a sudden in a bad way.
“It nearly killed me. I can say today that I’m lucky to be alive because of what happened with the depression, feeling lonely and having a lack of purpose in my life.
“Ironically, I had everything. I had a wonderful family, two wonderful kids, millions in the bank. I had nothing to be sad about, but I was just lost.”
Without the routine that football had provided, Claus had made a promise to himself to take two years off, concentrating on enjoying the benefits a life dedicated to football had earned him. It was a decision he would later admit was a mistake.
“I was partying a lot more, drinking on a regular basis,” he said. “Starting off with maybe two or three times a week to all of a sudden drinking every day.
“I could afford to let go as I had the resources to do what I wanted to, and I think my situation escalated into a life-or-death situation very quickly.
“During that time, people around me, my family, my kids, everyone, saw that I was struggling, but no one really could reach into me.
“I tried to maintain a day-to-day living by being a dad for my kids and doing charity work for the club, but everything ended up in more drinking and more drugs.
“I was drinking and using so much that I went into psychosis quite a few times. My heart stopped. I had a heart attack after overdosing on alcohol, cocaine and prescription medication.
“It was life and death. It happened very quickly and looking back today it’s horrendous thinking that I could all of a sudden end up in such a bad way, but that was the case.”
Friends and family urged him to seek help, but Claus felt he was in control of his situation when, actually, his problems were only getting worse.
“You have to remember that I was captain of Southampton Football Club,” he said. “I was the big, strong Norwegian and I couldn’t really show any weakness. That’s how I felt for a long time.
“That stigma or ego needed breaking down before I could get to a place that I accepted help.
“It took a long time before I reached bottom and I needed to reach rock bottom so many times before I could actually hold my hands up and say I needed help.
“It went so far that I’d give up. I’d given up on life and I tried to kill myself twice.
“Looking back today, it’s one of those things you don’t wish on your worst enemy. It’s so embedded in you, the pain you’re in is so tremendously difficult to get out of when you first get where I was.
“I didn’t want to live. When I eventually broke down in tears in front of my kids, in front of my girls, it started to wake me up, to admit to myself that I was in a bad place and admit that I needed help. It took a long time. I had to break down.”
After opening up to his family, the realisation that his lifestyle was affecting his daughters, and the prospect of them losing their father, finally spurred Claus into seeking help.
It was a visit to his home in Southampton from Sporting Chance co-founder Peter Kay that Claus pinpoints as the moment his life turned around.
“He drove down one afternoon and came into my house,” he said. “We said hello, sat down in the dining room and we just looked at each other and both of us started crying.
“That was the first time I felt that somebody else could feel my pain, could feel what I was going through. That gave me a lot strength, a lot of hope and encouragement to do something with my situation and to do something with the addiction that I was heavily in at the time.
“For me, my ego, my pride was at stake and it was life and death before I admitted to myself that I needed help.
“When it comes to addiction, you need first to accept it to yourself before you actually can get some help.
“I wish I could have found that in me earlier, but I didn’t. That’s all individual, but start talking about it earlier, start talking about your situation there and then.
“Be honest to your closest friends, to your family. Don’t go behind their back and hide your abuse. It’s all easy to say, but if you can do that, you can get into the right path and get help a lot earlier than I did.”
Claus is now able to use his experiences to support other people, working for the Psychiatry Alliance in Norway to help those suffering with mental health issues and addiction. He highlights the importance of opening up about the problems you’re experiencing as the most important step to seeking help.
“Please talk about it,” he said. “Put aside your ego and your hard face because if you can be able to talk about it, to maybe shed a tear or two about your pain and your situation, there is help there for you. There is a system that will help you and there’s good help to get.
“It all starts with being honest to yourself and by putting your pain into words to somebody else that will help.
“That will put you in a place where you feel that others will accept your problems in a very positive way, because there’s so much stigma and taboo around mental health and addiction problems that it’s very difficult to come out and talk about it.
“But please do, because everybody’s got a mental health, everybody will go through some difficulties in their lives. The sooner you can be able to talk about it, talk to your closest family and talk to your best friends about it, the quicker you can get help.”
One in four of us is affected by a mental health problem in any year and many more of us know and care for people who do.
You can find resources and information available on the Saints By Your Side website, whether you are struggling with your mental health or supporting your friends and family.