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READ | I think it was the reassurance from people that I wasn't alone and neither was Chris - Richie

9 October 2020

There is an awful lot going on in the world right now.

The impact of the COVID-19 outbreak has been clear for all to see. Whether you are young, old, an athlete or not, we have all been subject to some form of disruption to our ‘normal’ daily routines.

However, no amount of visual representation on news channels and in media outlets can successfully portray the struggles that this uncertainty has created for each and every person, in every household across the world.

In fact, when it comes to mental health it is impossible to physically depict an individual’s struggles.

Our assistant manager, Richie Barker, has very bravely agreed to the following interview to speak out about an issue which is widely regarded as a ‘silent killer’ in our society, costing the lives of those who often wear the biggest smiles on a day-to-day basis – having lost his own brother Chris, to suicide as a result of his battle with his mental health less than five months ago.

Richie is hopeful that by sharing his story he is able to raise awareness of the importance in taking care of our own mental health, while promoting kindness to ensure we are best placed to help others who may be struggling, and therefore prevent other families from suffering the unimaginable heartache his own family have carried since Chris’ passing.

 

 

The pair had grown up loving the game together, innocently chasing a ball around their Aston-based back garden, with their dad watching on proudly, blissfully unaware that both would one day fulfil a dream so many youngsters aspire to.

Richie, the elder of the pair by just over four years, would be the first to venture into the professional game taking the more ‘conventional’ route through Academy football before Sheffield Wednesday signed him on senior terms.

While he carved out his footballing path with loans to the likes of Doncaster Rovers and Brighton and Hove Albion, with a short stint in Northern Ireland with Linfield sandwiched in between, Chris was plugging away in non-league football, working relentlessly to follow in his brother’s footsteps.

And he would.

In 1999, after a spell with Alfreton Town, Chris was handed his big break by Barnsley and from there, he never looked back, claiming the Tykes’ Young Player of the Year award in his maiden season, firmly introducing himself to the professional world.

"My dad would throw a ball out for us and we'd be out chasing around kicking it,” Richie told www.themillers.co.uk.

“There was four-and-a-half years between us but by the time we were a bit older we were playing together because Chris would come out on the street and play with my mates when he was around five and we were all 10-years-old.

"I think he bared the fruits of that in later years because he was playing with older kids when he was quite small anyway. He benefited from having to adapt to playing with stronger players right from Day One. My mates would treat him as though he was one of us.

"Football was with us right from the start. We had very different paths into the professional game but he had a far better career than I did.”

After all of his hard work, Chris was rewarded with a success-laden professional career, the majority of which was spent at second tier level, with spells at Barnsley, Cardiff City and Southend United among the highlights.

Despite having made the grade himself, Richie admits that he never stopped being proud of a brother and player he regarded so highly, whilst never losing his personable nature.

“I was immensely proud of everything that he did as a player but what I was more proud of was the fact that it never changed him.

Richie Barker

"Everybody who I have spoken to in the last few months always talks about how important it was for him and for them, that he was just the same person. It didn't matter whether he was Player of the Year, if he'd just been promoted or whatever achievement it was, he was the person who spent all the time with the groundsman, the kitman and the people behind-the-scenes.”

Both Richie and Chris played the professional game for 17 years, which by all accounts, is not an insignificant amount of time.

However, if you speak with the majority of ex-players and current managers, they will all tell you how quickly their own careers passed them by.

Much has been made of the impact that one day leaving behind the euphoria of the chance to play in stadiums packed with supporters, the chants of your name and the adulation of the fans of your own team, can have on a person.

After all, footballers - however much they earn and no matter what level of success they enjoy as part of their jobs - are only human.

Having had to undergo the transition of calling time on his own playing career, Richie admitted that leaving behind a game you love so passionately and have devoted your life to, can have serious implications on the mental health of many exiting the beautiful game.

"One day you're a footballer and one day you're not,” said Richie, implying just how quickly his own career seemed to fly by.

"There are a lot of the players that come to the end of their time and have a meeting with the Chairman or the manager, who tells them there isn't a contract for them anymore and wonder where they go now.

"I think mental health problems can occur anywhere. I think they can occur in what I would call 'everyday life' but they are massively prevalent in professional football.

Richie Barker

"I think a lot has been spoken about those reaching the end of their careers, for whatever reason, whether it is an injury or there is no other club for them, or even if they have chosen to retire. It is a difficult thing to be able to replace that dressing room that you're in every day, the accolade of playing in front of fans every weekend and everything else that comes with it.

"There are various different reasons, as there are for people in every walk of life, but as we've all seen and heard, it is becoming more apparent in professional football.”

Football has become a global spectacle, there is no denying that.

Every move, both on and off the pitch from someone within the game is analysed, studied and often, scrutinised.

Recent advances in technology have given us social media. A place where every person or fan can have a voice on pretty much any topic they wish to air their views on.

Sometimes it is used for brilliant things. We see the good in people and the good in the world.

Unfortunately, it is often the opposite.

Nobody in football is naïve enough to think that supporters shouldn’t be able to voice their opinion, whether that is a positive or negative one.

However, as we have all witnessed, the negative voice is often the louder of the two, something Richie believes can certainly impact on the mindset of those subject to what can often be described as abuse.

"I am not a social media-person. I am quite a private person, as was Chris. We didn't tend to use social media,” he explained.

"I get that social media gives people a voice and everyone is entitled to that but if you aren't prepared to say that particular thing to that person's face in the street, then maybe that suggests it isn't a nice thing to publish on the internet.

“I am actually quite thankful that I wasn't involved in a game which was so heavily debated on social media. In my playing days I managed to stay away from it. I didn't listen to the radio, I didn't read the newspapers and I don't read social media now.

"I always knew whether I had played well or not - as most players do.

"They don't need to be told. The majority of professional sportsmen recognise their bad performances. What they don't need is constant reminders of that from thousands of people.

"I have spoken for a long time about changing some aspects of the law regarding social media. If somebody acts on behalf of a tweet or message that somebody has sent to them then I personally feel there should be legal implications for that person. 

"Unfortunately now, there are definitely players out there who are affected by comments on social media and people's opinions.”

Richie Barker

In some cases, supporters try to justify their comments both on and offline by referencing the salaries taken home by footballers.

There is no denying that players are handsomely paid in some cases, but does that mean that they will be able to mentally process abuse more than you or me? No.

Richie continued to admit that whilst he recognises that footballer’s pay cheques are the envy of many, it has no role in aiding a person in their battle with mental health issues.

“Unfortunately, for many of them, the amount of money that comes in on payday is no substitute for the issues that players go through behind closed doors in their own homes,” he added.

"That can be brought on by literally anything. Relationships, moving clubs, not playing and it isn't always football-linked.

“I get why it is sometimes difficult for fans to understand why somebody earning 5, 10 or 15 thousand pounds per week can have mental issues, but until you've experienced it you perhaps don't realise it is possible.

"It happens in cricket and rugby too and it is present in elite environment sports. 

"I understand the people's thought process behind thinking they earn X amount of money, they can't have problems, but unfortunately most of the time, that isn't the case.

"We've seen it with people who are in the limelight on television like Caroline Flack, so it isn't just limited to sport. 

"My advice would be to somebody who is about to write something they believe to be a throwaway comment or that it has no kind of influence would be to have 30 seconds before you press send.

“Think about how I would feel if somebody acted on the behalf of a comment like that.”

What could be better than not posting a negative or hateful comment on social media? Well, plenty.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week, which has run from Monday 18th May to Sunday 24th May is kindness.

Kindness is a wonderful thing to put into practice.

We’ve all felt good after a compliment or valued at work when we’re told how well we’re performing in our jobs.

The effect of kindness on a person’s mental health cannot be underestimated.

"Let's try and be kind to each other,” Richie encouraged.

“You don't have to be kind to everybody but if you what you have to say is negative, don't say it. I think that is the least we can do.

"I think there is some amazing stuff that goes on in professional sport. We have definitely seen some extreme acts of kindness over the last few months.

"If we go back to social media, I was told that there was 25,000 posts about Chris after he died and people were sharing their memories of him. If I'm honest, I never read any of them - I wasn't in a strong enough place at that particular time - but it is something that I will sit back and do.”

Richie Barker

While they certainly help, acts of kindness alone cannot always help someone out of a dark place.

Some will choose to confide in a best mate or close relative, but Richie believes each individual is different.

Following Chris’ passing, Richie revealed he was in need of someone to lend an ear to his problems.

In his case, issues he didn’t want to air with his family or even his closest friends, just a stranger willing to listen.

"At times there have been thoughts I haven't been comfortable sharing with my wife or with my kids and friends.

Richie Barker

"What I don't mind admitting is that over the last four months I have taken professional help in terms of some very kind offers through the PFA and private counselling.

“They just weren't conversations I was comfortable having with them. For some reason, I have found it easier to share some of these things with someone I don't really know very well. I knew that he was there for the right reasons for me, and I think that was a big factor in choosing to share my thoughts with him.

"I have been presented with loads of opportunities to share my thoughts and over the last few months I have chosen to predominantly confide within one particular person.

"I'm not saying everyone has to find a top professional to share with but certainly over the very difficult period of the last few months for me, it has worked for me.

"If you can, get hold of somebody. Try and find someone. You may find that what you thought was a big issue, isn't at all.”

That is something Richie implores anyone who feels as though they are struggling to do – talk to someone.

We all know there are people out there to help us in times of trouble with our mental health, but we sometimes have a fear within ourselves of making contact. Don’t.

If you don’t want to speak with a professional, you don’t have to, but please, speak to somebody.

"A problem shared is a problem halved is definitely something I believe to be true,” Richie reiterated.

"It can easily be shared with someone in a coffee shop or with someone at the other end of the phone. It can be an email or a video call. 

“I understand at this precise moment that it is difficult, a lot of people are spending a lot of time on their own.

"I would encourage anyone to pick up the phone and speak to someone they know or even someone they don't know - whoever it is they are more comfortable speaking to,

"For me, the most important way to address the problem is to speak about it.”

Richie Barker

We began this interview by discussing how professional football can take its toll on a player’s mental health in a negative way, but it would be totally amiss of us not to recognise what a brilliant support network it can provide.

Following Chris’ sudden and tragic passing, Richie was certainly greeted with compassion in abundance from the ‘football family.

"The support from the footballing community was unbelievable,” he explained gratefully.

"It is a fantastic community and I had phone calls from managers and players in the top flight who had taken the time out. I had one particular Premier League manager ring me one Sunday morning to ask how I was, and that for me, really showed how much support was out there.

"Football is an unbelievable family. I have my own family but I had to rely on my football family as well. That was right from the boys at Rotherham to Karl [Robinson] who I had worked with previously and was excellent with me for my first game, which coincided with being back at Oxford.

"Right from the lads on the staff here to the players I played with, and the lads that Chris played with, the whole thing has definitely given me faith in people, society and football.”

Unfortunately, many of us know that five months is no time when it comes to losing a loved one and the pain caused by the void left by that person often burns on for a long time.

Whilst Richie admits that he now has ‘more good days than bad ones’, he is also aware he is still very much healing and explains that the opportunity to get back to his work and doing what he loves has been of huge comfort to him during these incredibly difficult times.

"As you can imagine it has been an extremely tough five month period for myself and my family,” he conceded.

"I am getting there. I had to throw myself back into work, for myself as much as anyone else.

"In terms of my well-being, I would say I have more good days than bad days.

Richie Barker

"It has been nice to spend some time with my family, albeit not in great circumstances over the last few weeks. Being away from home sometimes isn't that easy either, so spending time with them has definitely helped.

"It was also important that I came back and hopefully played a small part in some success - depending on whatever happens over the next month or so.

"I just take every day as it comes now, but I am definitely more aware of the issues because I think that is always the case when something touches you.

"You always think that it is something that happens to someone else, but unfortunately when it happens to you, it is something that is much more real.”

Overcoming mental health problems is something that is much more easily accomplished with the help of others and it is with that in mind that Richie agreed to do this interview with us, for which we are incredibly grateful.

His aim now is to continue to raise awareness of the importance of taking care of your mental health, whilst reiterating that there are people out there to help if you get to a point at which you are struggling.

"If I can help just one person, whether that is with an interview, some fundraising or whatever, then I have achieved something out of this,” he stated.

“I want to spread the word and try to ensure that not as many families have to go through situations like this as they do at present."

"I have spoken to a couple of charities and done a bit of fundraising. I have spoken with the Community Sports Trust about raising awareness around mental health with them, but definitely when we are more aware of the picture on the football side, I want to sit down and try and help wherever possible.”

As our supporters will be aware, it has been a tough season for so many within the Millers’ ranks for a number of different reasons.

In spite of all the adversity which members of our squad, staff and fan base have had to endure the club sit second in Sky Bet League One – a fantastic effort, achieved through solidarity and togetherness.

"So many people have had an unbelievably tough time at this club this season and I am sure that when we get to the end of the season we will remember those we have lost,” Richie added.

“Paul [Warne] lost his dad right at the beginning of the season, there was myself losing Chris, Crooksy then lost his best friend a few weeks later, Jamie Lindsay's little boy was seriously ill in hospital and Thommo lost his dad.

"I think if the decision is made and we are promoted, we will all be dedicating it to all those people who we have unfortunately lost along the way.”

Of course we are all hopeful that the Millers achieve promotion, but whatever happens, it has been an incredible season and one that has seen everyone involved turn in efforts befitting of honouring those we have lost along the way.

We will finish this interview on this, which we hope is a stark reminder to everyone out there who is struggling with mental health issues.

"I think it was the reassurance from people that I wasn't alone and neither was Chris. It really reaffirmed that nobody is alone.

Richie Barker

Thank you again Richie for speaking to us about such a sensitive topic so soon after Chris’ passing.

You are doing him proud.


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