Former England footballer Anton Ferdinand has opened up about the depression and acute insomnia he experienced while in deep grief after losing his mother. Ferdinand, brother of ex-England player Rio Ferdinand, was a devoted son to their mother Janice St Fort, who died of cancer back in 2017.
“When my mother passed away, for long periods I didn’t sleep properly,” he told the Mixed Up podcast hosts Emma Slade Edmondson and Nicole Ocran. “For three months every night I’d be up at 2am, then 4am and I wouldn’t go back to sleep after 4am,” he revealed in a podcast interview that airs today.
According to the UK’s leading bereavement charity Cruse, insomnia is a very common grief reaction. “It’s normal to have trouble sleeping after someone dies,” says a spokesperson. “You might find it difficult to get to sleep because your mind is racing. Sometimes, you may dream that the person who died is still alive and find waking up to be painful.”
Ferdinand famously filmed a compelling BBC documentary called Football, Racism and Me following the high-profile racial abuse he suffered on the pitch in 2011 from former Chelsea captain John Terry, who was later found guilty by the Football Association (FA) of racially abusing the then QPR defender and fined £220,000, even though he was formally acquitted of the charge in a court of law.
Watching the ground-breaking TV documentary back, which was first aired in November 2020, made Ferdinand realise for the first time how poor his mental health was after his mother's death.
“It wasn’t until I’d made the documentary and watched it back, that things started to make sense to me,” he revealed. “I was like, ‘I now understand why I wasn’t sleeping.’ It made me understand [it was] about my mum dying because of it*.”
*Ferdinand was referring to his fear that the stress of the high-profile John Terry incident and court case had somehow made his mother ill and led to her death, and his belief that he was somehow therefore to blame.
The charity Cruse confirms that guilt is another very common grief reaction, as is going over every detail of the death, searching for answers.
“That’s what I was fighting with,” he admitted. “That it was my fault... my mum died. That’s what I was fighting with at the time. I just didn’t know it at the time because it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind, it was in my subconscious.”
“That’s why I wasn’t able to sleep," he continued, "and it wasn’t until I was watching the documentary back that it came to me and I was able to put that to the forefront of my mind and actually deal with it. I’ve slept perfect [sic] ever since.”
The documentary led to a flood of “apologies” from friends and fellow footballers who “felt like they hadn’t been good friends. They felt like they hadn’t rung in and checked on me,” he added.
But Ferdinand bears no grudge and in fact blames himself for not speaking out about the mental health challenges he was going through. “The process of doing the documentary was so therapeutic to me. I understood that it was my fault because I made everyone think I was fine because I was still trying to be happy-go-lucky. I was still trying to be the Anton who wanted to banter all the time, rather than allowing people to understand and know that there was a problem.”
“I couldn't let people know... because I didn't know I was actually in it [the depression],” he reflected. “But because I was so open… because I allowed myself to be vulnerable within the documentary… there was a lot of clarity that came to me.”
As a result of his own experience, Ferdinand has now become passionate about encouraging others to speak out if they’re suffering – a step that he believes is vital from a suicide prevention point of view too.
“That's a lesson to people… that you have to talk no matter what, you have to talk, be open about it, because if something does happen and you do pass away [from suicide], then the people that are still here will carry that because you didn't allow them to help.”
“We're not told to be emotional," he continued. "It's not the thing to do, but when you speak, there's so much more clarity and it’s so much more therapeutic.”
Several years on, he now counts himself “lucky” for coming out of the deep depression he suffered. “I use the word 'lucky' and I'm lucky to be here if I'm really honest with you,” he said.
“That's not me saying that I thought about doing anything [attempting suicide] because I didn't, but I'm lucky to be here because I now understand mental health.
“[Before] I was one of those people that didn’t understand it and I was ignorant. ‘How can you have mental health issues? What’s there to be sad about?’ I was that guy, but now I've experienced it myself. I now understand and know that you don't actually realise how deep you are in [the depression] until you come out of it.”
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Watch: Anton Ferdinand's BBC documentary trailer: Football, Racism and Me