Former Blackpool footballer Paul Stewart bared his soul in front of a packed audience at Bloomfield Road, to stress the importance of treating mental health seriously.
It was his dream to grow up to be a footballer but, despite the fact he played for some of the biggest clubs in England and won three caps for his country, Paul Stewart’s dream was tainted by mental health problems sparked by years of horrific abuse as a child.
Paul’s harrowing story received a heart-felt, standing ovation as the keynote speaker at the International Men’s Day event in the Matthews’ Suite in the stadium.
The aim of the conference was to highlight the importance of talking about depression, anxiety and suicidal feelings, and for businesses to understand how to support staff and where to go to get help.
The event featured a raft of organisations including The Washington Group, the Empowerment Charity, Fulfilling Lives, Better Start Dads4life, Blackpool Football Community Trust, Blackpool Public Health, Jobs Friends and Houses, NHS, Change Talks, Blackpool Transport and members of the Armed Forces Covenant.
The free event featured interactive workshops, plus a marketplace area, with key community businesses and organisations showcasing services available.
Mike Crowther, chief executive of the Empowerment Charity from Blackpool, which was one of the organisers, was the first speaker.
He told how it was important to bring the issue of men’s mental wellbeing into the open and how difficult it was for men given the tradition that men should not talk about their feelings or admit weakness.
He said: “I am a 47-year-old man and just three years ago I learned to talk.
“Since the age of 18 I have been struggling with depression and anxiety.”
He said it was only when he visited a therapist and started talking about the issues things have improved.
He said: “They are not brilliant , but they are better. There are a lot of brave men out there who have shared their stories and battles they have had. That is important. We have a lot of people here in Blackpool working to make things better.”
Paul Stewart then told the heart-breaking tale of how as a10 -year-old from one of the largest council estates in Manchester he had been spotted playing football by a coach who then insinuated himself into Paul’s family, buying them presents, including their first colour TV, and sports gear and telling them Paul could go a long way in football.
Paul said the man began isolating him from the other boys and his friends and began abusing him physically and sexually, while at the same time threatening him that if he told anyone, he would kills his brothers and parents.
He said the man would wait for him in his car after school and if he saw Paul talking to friends, he would beat him.
He said: “I suffered physical and sexual abuse every day for four years and that included Christmas Day.
“As a young lad, I just didn’t know what to do. He threatened to kill my family. When we went on a football trip to the USA he made sure one of my brothers came along."
The man threatened Paul that he and his brother were a long way from home and no-one would know or care what happened to them. In the days long before mobile phones, when you were more likely to get home before any postcard you sent, Paul feared for his brother's life.
"He told the family we were staying with that my parents had asked him to stay in the same room as me because I got homesick.
“It was hell.”
When Paul was 14, one night in the car he finally got the courage to push the man away and ran off home.
“I thought I had run away from him, but I realised later that I was now too old for him and he had moved on to another victim.
“I then joined this fabulous football club in Blackpool. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a troubled child and damage my dream of playing professionally.”
He said despite moving on to Manchester City, Spurs and later Liverpool, his experiences left him damaged inside and he turned to drink and drugs.
“The first time I did that, I thought I had found a solution to my problems, but it just compounded them.”
He said he had thought about suicide on many occasions and later found it hard to emotionally relate to his wife and own family.
It was in November 2016 when Paul finally confronted his issues. He had read the story in a national newspaper about the abuse footballer Andy Woodward had suffered aged 11.
“I knew it was a big story. I was writing an email to the reporter when it dawned on me. I had not even told my wife and family. I had not told my parents.”
The news devastated all of them. He said it it not just the victim that abuse harms.
Paul told how he worked with people such as The Washington Group and Empowerment in Blackpool and how important it was to be able to talk about mental health issues.
He said: “I would ask that anyone who runs a business bears it in mind. Men are not infallible, they may have issues.
“Don’t just think, ‘Oh, they are off work again’. Don’t just think, ‘Oh, that child is naughty. No-one really knows what is going on in the background.’”
Debbie Terras, from the Washington Group charity, said it was about getting over the stigma attached to mental illness and showing how businesses could help their employees.
She said: “Today was all about the support that is available for men.
“We want to spread the awareness of what is available in the community and for it to be the start of taking men’s mental health seriously in Blackpool.”