Rio Ferdinand on coping with panic and anxiety: “I thought it was a weakness for a man to show emotions”

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Kayleigh Dray
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It is no secret that there is a persistent social taboo around mental health: a few years ago, Time to Change surveyed 2,000 people across the UK – and they found that admitting to a mental health condition was deemed harder to confessing to alcoholism or bankruptcy.

However, things are beginning to change – and a lot of that has to do with those in the public eye who have chosen to be open about their own battles with mental wellness. Fearne CottonRyan Reynolds, Selena GomezDemi Lovato and Ellie Goulding are amongst those who have done exactly this, in a bid to help pave the way to a better understanding of the issues faced by so many.

Now, hoping that his honesty will encourage further important conversations about mental health, former England footballer Rio Ferdinand has opened up about the helplessness and pain he felt after he lost his wife, Rebecca Ellison, to breast cancer in 2015. She was just 34 years old.

Explaining that the macho culture of football made it incredibly difficult for him to open up about how he was feeling, he told the Radio Times: “I sit in my bedroom and cry but actually talking about feelings is different.

“I am from a dressing room culture, I was closed off emotionally and I thought it was a weakness for a man to show emotions.”

The 38-year-old continued: “Initially when I tried to get help, and was offered counselling, I just thought ‘yeah but has this happened to you personally?’ I thought if you had not lost your own spouse… I thought it was like someone who has not passed their driving test taking you for a driving lesson. But that was my own ignorance.”

When asked if he feels guilty about being the parent left alive, a visibly emotional Ferdinand said: “Yes, probably, yes. Because mums are different.”

Ferdinand – who has, in the past, worked with Heads Together and Prince Harry to raise awareness about mental health – has also revealed that he found himself in a “dark place” after Rebecca passed away.

“At the beginning I was drinking a lot at night,” he told The Sun. “I’d come down in the middle of the night and drink too much in the first three or four months.

“It was a car crash. I was just lucky I had my kids, if I’m honest.”

But although his three children – Lorenz, 10, Tate, eight, and Tia, five – helped him to get through the difficult times, the former footballer admits that it wasn’t easy adjusting to life as a single parent. He regularly found himself plagued with anxiety, and even suffered panic attacks as he struggled to get to grips with the new reality of the family’s day-to-day life.

“When they first went back to school I woke up in the morning scrambling around,” said Ferdinand.

“It was the first time they've ever been late for school but I was having a panic attack on my own in the house.

“I had to go into a room on my own and sit there and think, ‘What happens now?’ Then I've got one of them in the car going, 'Mum wouldn't do this'.

“You don't know what to do. You sit there.”

Ferdinand has filmed a documentary about his struggle to cope with grief, Rio: Being Mum and Dad, which is due to air on BBC1 on 28 March at 9pm.

He hopes that the film will encourage others who have lost someone to seek help and communicate about their feelings.

It is natural to experience feelings of grief, anxiety, and helplessness after you lose someone you love.

However the NHS have said that you should seek help or expert advice if any of the following apply to you:

  • You don't feel able to cope with overwhelming emotions or daily life.
  • The intense emotions aren't subsiding.
  • You're not sleeping.
  • You have symptoms of depression or anxiety.
  • Your relationships are suffering.
  • You're having sexual problems.
  • You're becoming accident-prone.

If you recognise any of the signs on this list, then the NHS strongly advises that you visit your GP, who can advise you about support services, refer you to a counsellor, offer self-care tips, or suggest a number of treatments. 

You can find out more information – including a series of approved self-care tips – on the Mind website. Alternatively, contact Cruse Bereavement Care (0808 808 1677) or Samaritans (116 123).

Images: BBC One


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.