“When you bottle things up, you are going to crash. That’s what happened to me.” Former Norwich City striker on mental health battle

Norwich City V Southampton, the match that gave them thier first win of the season. Leon McKenzie.Ph

Norwich City V Southampton, the match that gave them thier first win of the season. Leon McKenzie.Photo: Simon FinlayCopy: For: EDP/EEN SportEDP pics © 2004(01603) 772434 - Credit: Archant © 2004

As part of our campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues and fight for better services for sufferers, former Norwich City star striker Leon McKenzie talked to Luke Powell about his own experiences.

Leon McKenzie. Jamie's Game 2 at Carrow Road on Sunday. Photo: Bill Smith

Leon McKenzie. Jamie's Game 2 at Carrow Road on Sunday. Photo: Bill Smith

It was in 2009 that ex-City striker Leon McKenzie hit rock bottom.

Heavily depressed, the former Premiership footballer, then at Charlton Athletic, attempted to take his own life in a hotel room.

Hours later he awoke in hospital surrounded by concerned friends and family, who until then, had no idea of his internal struggle.

Like many people suffering with depression, the 37-year-old had locked his emotions away from those close to him.

Boxing action from EPIC, Norwich. Leon McKenzie wining his fight with Robert Studzinski.Photo: Steve

Boxing action from EPIC, Norwich. Leon McKenzie wining his fight with Robert Studzinski.Photo: Steve Adams

Thankfully, some six years on Mr McKenzie, who scored 115 goals in his career as a pacy striker including two in his Derby Day debut versus Ipswich Town, has turned his life around to once again rise to the top of his game – this time as a professional boxer.

And he hopes that by sharing his experience, others will be encouraged to speak and seek support before its too late.

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'Depression has always been with me, even when I was playing. But I did not always recognise the signs,' the father-of-five said.

'When you bottle things up, after a while you are going to crash, and if you don't talk about it and get some help, you are going to fold.

'That's what happened to me.'

Mr McKenzie, who now lives in East London, had already experienced the effects of suicide after his sister took her own life aged 23 in 2000.

Nine years later, following a divorce and sporting injury that left him unable to play football, he found himself contemplating his own future.

He felt he had been unable to share his feelings due to the stigma attached to mental health – something he feels still exists today.

'When you speak about your emotions, you get classed as being weak.

In society, you feel as though you have to be strong all of the time, but not everyone can be,' he said.

'I remember pulling my hamstring after one training session, calling my mum and crying like a five-year-old.

'That night I tried to take an overdose and no-one really knew about my problems until I woke up in hospital and had my family and friends around me.

'There was tears and confusion, because to anyone who knows me, I am quite a bubbly character.'

After taking some time out from football, his life started to go into a decline and in 2012 he was jailed for six months for sending bogus letters to avoid a driving ban.

While his time in prison had been a turning point in his life, McKenzie was faced with further turmoil on his release.

'It got worse for me when I came out,' he said. 'I went through my second divorce and financially that hurt again.

'You find yourself in another position, thinking 'what will I do now?'. I was 34 years old and I lost everything.'

Rather than being overcome by the hardships facing him, McKenzie fought back.

He secured a job as a delivery driver and returned to the gym to get into shape.

Now, he is a professional boxer, undefeated after eight fights, with hopes to take a shot at the British super-middleweight title.

His advice for anyone with depression – a condition he admits he still suffers with – is to speak to someone about it.

He said: 'I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me, because the choices I made at the time were the wrong choices.

'I literally lost everything, some of it was my fault, some of it wasn't.

'I want to show that although you can lose everything, you can rebuild yourself as an individual.'

Our new Mental Health Watch campaign has so far received the backing of scores of people in the region. If you wish to support it please fill in the form on this page.

Visit our website for previous stories and to read about our Mental Health Manifesto.

If you have a story relating to mental health, email David Powles at david.powles@archant.co.uk