“For a number of years I just held it all in… because of my age I thought a club wouldn’t touch a player with mental health issues.”
For Kevin Ellison, like so many others, 2020 has been tough.
Job security is a scarce commodity for so many at the moment and that certainly applies when you are a ‘between clubs’ footballer the wrong side of 40.
With bills to pay and children to feed, Ellison has faced a time of stress. He has been open in the past about his mental health struggles or, as he describes it, “that dark cloud”.
It returned this year, Ellison admits, but he is now feeling good again.
Having signed for the team he used to torment for a decade and with his playing career secured for the season, Ellison is keen to use his profile as League Two club Newport County’s mental health ambassador to help people who are struggling.
Appropriately, Ellison could be set to make his league debut for the table-toppers on World Mental Health Day after a year that started badly and did not improve until Newport came calling.
‘Dark cloud’ returned amid pandemic uncertainty
It has been a tough period for Ellison. The winger was let go by Morecambe after almost a decade with the club. His father – also named Kevin – spent a month in a coma after falling off a roof and is thankfully now recovering after being critically ill.
Worries over family, health, bills and the future are extremely relatable subjects at any time but especially during a pandemic, and Ellison is keen to be a sounding board and example to players and fans struggling with depression or anxiety.
“Until this summer football used to be more of a release than something I felt pressure over, until you are unemployed with two kids to feed and a house to run. That is pressure and that’s when I started feeling things again,” he says.
“In the UK a lot of people are going through this because none of us have a crystal ball about what will happen, people are struggling.
“A bit of a cloud came over me again; I was thinking: ‘How am I going to support my two kids?’ And I was thinking: ‘What am I going to do?’
“Clubs are getting financially affected and you are hearing chairmen saying squads will be smaller and they are going with more youth and there is me thinking straight away: ‘Great, I’m 41. What chance have I got of getting a contract if chairman think that?'”
“I thought I’d go into part-time football and get a part-time job, but then you turn on the news and hear that the majority of the UK are losing jobs because of Covid and I started overthinking things again – thinking: I can’t play football, I can’t get a job, how am I going to support my kids?
“That’s where I was, your mind starts running away with things… worrying about how you can afford things and before you know it you are putting two and two together and getting 12.
“I am fortunate to get another club on a full-time deal. I knew I had something to offer and I am grateful to be here at Newport County.”
‘Dad was in a coma when I signed’
A lifelong Liverpool fan, Ellison’s father Kevin was putting up bunting to celebrate the Reds’ title win in June when he fell off a ladder directly on to concrete.
He was in a coma for a month and Ellison says the family feel blessed that he is on the mend.
“Dad is coming on. It’s slow progress but unbelievable, because he was basically dead – that’s what they [doctors] told us,” he adds.
“For him to still be here today, we are so grateful. His speech is affected and his memory is here and there, but just for him to be with us is such a blessing.
“I signed for Newport when he was in a coma – and when he came around, he was made up I’d signed for them!
“He said I always do well against them, but that it would be a bit far to come down to watch a game and to support us.
“But he was made up for me.”
Mental health ambassador
Newport have announced Ellison as their mental health ambassador and the winger admits he has had lots of people within football approach him about their own mental health issues since he first spoke out on social media in 2018.
Ellison admits before that, he was worried honesty would be to the detriment of his career.
“It was tough at first. When I first went through it aged 31 or 32, you are worried about opening up and being judged,” he says.
“In football, you are classed as finished at the age aren’t you? At the age I was at the time I was thinking, I’ve got six months left of my contract and they will use my mental health problems against me and decide they aren’t keen.
“For years I held it in but once I spoke out – and it wasn’t for sympathy, it was to release a bit of pressure on me – it seemed to help others and now I’ve got a passion to help people.
“Football is my job and priority, but if I can contribute to helping others, especially in our community, I will do what I can.
“I’ve had an awful lot of people reach out to me and say they are struggling and I still do to this day.
“I tell them ‘I’m not a doctor or a therapist, but I can tell you what I went through and coped,’ and then point them in the direction of medical professionals.”
Ellison feels that while strides have been made to get more people talking about how they are feeling, that there is still a way to go.
“The way people talk about depression has moved on. I wouldn’t have spoken out 10 years ago or even five years ago,” he adds.
“But there is still a massive stigma about it and more needs to be done.
“Just because someone plays football or goes on certain holidays, doesn’t mean they won’t struggle, that’s just the way it is because we are all human.
“Playing football doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions. It doesn’t make you immune to things. We are all human beings.”